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"MAX"
(2015) (Josh Wiggins, Thomas Haden Church) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A rebellious teenager gets his life turned around when he's forced to care for the highly trained but now traumatized dog that worked with the teen's older Marine brother on the frontlines in Afghanistan.
PLOT:
Justin Wincott (JOSH WIGGINS) is a moody Texas teenager who wants little to do with his parents, Ray (THOMAS HADEN CHURCH) and Pam (LAUREN GRAHAM), and feels that his older brother, Kyle (ROBBIE AMELL), only joined the Marines to try to live up to his previously war-wounded dad's standards. When not playing video games, Justin makes bootleg copies and sells them to Emilio (JOSEPH JULIAN SORIA), the thug cousin to Justin's best friend, Chuy (DEJON LaQUAKE). Meanwhile, Kyle is serving on the frontlines in Afghanistan with his military-trained canine companion, Max, who alerts Kyle and others in his platoon, including his best friend, Tyler (LUKE KLEINTANK), when danger is afoot.

Unfortunately, Kyle ends up mortally wounded during an attack, resulting in Max suffering from a canine form of PTSD. When word gets out that he's going to be put down, Ray and Pam agree to take him in as he's part family. But the only person Max will respond to is Justin, as well as another of Chuy's cousins, Carmen (MIA XITLALI), who has a way about dogs and teaches Justin how to make him obey his commands.

Things get more complicated when Tyler, now out of the service and working for Ray, lies to him that the dog was responsible for Kyle's death. Unbeknownst to Ray or most everyone else, Tyler has smuggled military weapons into the U.S. and is working with corrupt Deputy Stack (OWEN HARN) and Emilio to sell them to a Mexican drug cartel. When Justin stumbles across that, he must figure out what to do, all while Max's life is on the line due to Tyler's previous lie.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Having been born into a family that already had a cat (and which lived another sixteen years), I've always been a cat person. I have nothing against dogs and get along just fine with those owned by family and friends. I'm just more into felines and have been known to post a cat video or two (or maybe a lot more) on Facebook.

Yet, despite that choice in terms of pets, one of my favorite shows growing up was "Lassie," the classic, decades-spanning tale of the Collie who always helped her family get out of danger. On a side note, it was the first TV show I ever watched on a color TV, something that didn't impress me as a second grader as "Lassie" had been filmed up to that point in black and white.

Notwithstanding that little bit of personal and television trivia, the eventual running joke about the dog's heroics was the line "What's that, Lassie? Timmy fell down a well?" -- information deducted from the dog's insistent barking. I don't have any recollection if Timmy actually ever made such a plunge, although there might have been a bad step into some quicksand, but that might have been an episode of "Tarzan" or "The Lone Ranger."

But I'm fairly certain there was never the translation of Lassie's barking to be anything along the lines of "What's that, Lassie? Timmy's run afoul of an ex-Marine who's selling stolen military weapons to a Mexican drug cartel?" While the titular canine in "Max" isn't the one who comes across that very situation (something I didn't see coming based on the original "boy and his dog" trailers), he does help save the day and -- natch -- assist the teenager in seeing the light in terms of changing his troubled ways.

Boak Yakin ("Remember the Titans") directs from a script he co-wrote with Sheldon Lettich that focuses on Texas teenager Justin Wincott (Josh Wiggins) who'd rather play and sell bootleg versions of video games rather than have anything to do with his parents (Thomas Haden Church and Lauren Graham). When his older brother perishes while on patrol in Afghanistan, that Marine's now nervous and likely dangerous service dog ends up with the family.

The teen initially wants nothing to do with the pooch, but a visit by pretty teenage girl (Mia Xitlali) -- the cousin to his best friend (Dejon LaQuake) -- brings about a change of heart. It's not long before they've bonded (both the boy and dog, and the boy and the girl), and notwithstanding a fireworks display that unnerves the pup during a town celebration, things seem hunky dory.

And then the fairly odd plot turn occurs when it's revealed that the dead Marine's best friend (Luke Kleintank) had been smuggling military weapons out of Afghanistan and back to the states. He and a corrupt deputy (Owen Harn) plan on selling them to a gang-banger (Joseph Julian Soria) who has connections to said cartel. And while Max doesn't come rushing home and insistently bark at the teens' parents until they figure something is wrong (and somehow translate dog-speak into English), he does prove heroic in his actions of dealing with the bad guys and helping save the day.

Accordingly, the film should play fairly well to younger kids who enjoy movies about the human-pet connection, while older views might appreciate the attempts at showcasing that animals too can suffer from PTSD, much like their human counterparts. And those wanting to see a Marine, even if it is in Belgian Malinois form, help bring down such a cartel, there's satisfaction to be had on that level as well.

That said, although I understand the need for heightened drama to up the ante in the third act, that latter part just didn't work that well for me, both from a concept and execution angle. Notwithstanding the canine star, most of the performances are just okay at best (and feel more in line with a TV movie), with only Xitlali standing out as the spunky teenager with both a chip on her shoulder and soft spot in her heart. The rest feel slightly off, although I couldn't always point a finger at what exactly the problem was.

And that applies to the movie as well. It's well intentioned, touches upon a rarely discussed issue involving animals, and the scene where the dog rushes to his former master's flag-draped coffin had me tearing up. The rest of the film? Not even remotely. Would I have felt differently watching this through the young eyes of my old Lassie days? Perhaps, but as seen through these adult peepers that have witnessed plenty of boy and his dog stories, this one is far from the cat's meow. Yeah, I said it, and I'll also say this film only rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed June 11, 2015 / Posted June 26, 2015


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