Who’s a good boy? Max, obviously, but, just to warn parents who don’t like their kiddies to view violence — this canine hero does not start in a good place. The film opens in heavy combat scenes with doggy Max leading a Marine troop patrolling Kandahar Province. We first watch our pooch sniff out a stash of weapons. But that success is followed by a bad patrol in which Max’s handler, Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell) dies with suspicious complications hovering nearby. Meanwhile, back in the States, Kyle’s grieving family inherits Max, who is now more PTSD victim than potential pet. It’s a bit of a stretch, but, this being Hollywood, the heartsore and slightly dysfunctional Wincott family makes space for the snarling brute. Can puppy love help heal hearts and prevent crime? And will you need spare hankies even before the surprisingly suspenseful story takes off? Doggedly affirmative, sir.
Okay, it isn’t Hitchcock. There is also a terrible premise involving guns, Latino gangsters, and cartels. Yet the film moves at a brisk pace courting both the heartwarming dog tale and the Wincotts’ emotional issues. Thomas Haden Church plays the leatherneck dad, and Josh Wiggins his wayward idealistic son Justin, who also tears up mountain trails on his bicycle. Rounding out the Americana aspect is Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) as a mother who knows a thing or two about male reserve.
It’s no Lassie Come Home or Old Yeller. But like most pet films, it plays fetch near the edge of mortality. The problem with Max is the hyper-military angle, especially for those who thought Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper was too gung ho. This one shamelessly plugs the glory of animals fighting wars for us in the last five minutes of credits. Pacifist alarm bells will go off. But it’s also tear-jerking family fun and for those who don’t mind soldier puns, a good example of Semper Fido.