Friday, June 26, 2015

Max: A fairly good dog

Max (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and quite generously, despite brutal behavior and considerable peril

By Derrick Bang

To quote the Joni Mitchell song, Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got, ’til it’s gone.

Case in point: Whatever happened to real-world, family-friendly adventure films?

A boy and his dog: The bond takes awhile to establish, but once Justin (Josh Wiggins) and
Max learn to trust each other, they're inseparable. Which is a good thing, because events
in Justin's neighborhood are about to get rather nasty...
By which I mean, films that a) aren’t animated; and b) don’t involve witchcraft, fantasy or science-fiction. In other words, stories that could — theoretically — happen to the rambunctious kids who live a few doors away.

Once upon a time, such efforts were a Hollywood genre staple. Early Disney live-action dramas perfected the formula: Consider the French slum children who foil a bank robbery, in 1963’s The Horse Without a Head; or the kidnappers who meet their match in a love-struck teenager (Hayley Mills), an FBI agent who’s allergic to cats (Dean Jones) and a wandering Siamese tomcat, in 1965’s That Darn Cat. (Don’t waste your time with the dreadful 1997 remake.)

Earlier still, avid fans thrilled to the adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and their various youthful companions. Nor should we overlook plucky little Benji, who saved two kidnapped children in his 1974 movie debut. (Sadly, Benji’s various sequels weren’t nearly as satisfying.)

Of late, though, such films haven’t merely become endangered; they’re all but extinct. I can’t think of one more recent than director Danny Boyle’s larkish Millions, and its saga of a 7-year-old British lad who stumbles onto a heist taking place just as the Euro is about to become the coin of the realm. And that was back in 2004.

All of which makes Max a welcome relief from the spell-wielding teens, post-apocalyptic heroines and animated toys/animals/robots/fairies that invariably get summoned when parents look at their moppets and say, “Okay, what shall we watch tonight?”

Director Boaz Yakin deserves credit for trying to revive a moribund genre, and he chose wisely with respect to the military service dog at the heart of this (mostly) engaging tale. At its best, Max is heartwarming, suspenseful and just amusing enough.

But Yakin and co-scripter Sheldon Lettich never quite get the tone right. Their script is clumsy and occasionally sloppy about details; their two-legged protagonist spends too much time being an unforgivably obnoxious little toad; and the general level of peril is way over the top for their film’s generous PG rating. Nasty, gun-toting weapons smugglers and the Mexican Mafia? Seriously? Whatever happened to bungling bank robbers?

When old-timers lament the innocence of an earlier era, this is the sort of escalating approach to violence that fuels the argument.


Max, a handsome brown/black Belgian Malinois, is introduced alongside his handler, U.S. Marine Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell), while working the dangerous front lines in Afghanistan. Yakin and Lettich deftly sketch the necessary relationships in a few economical scenes (and too bad their writing doesn’t stay this adept). Kyle regularly Skypes with his devoted mother (Lauren Graham, as Pamela) and father (Thomas Haden Church, as Ray); younger brother Justin (Josh Wiggins) usually can’t be bothered to surface from his shoot-’em-up video games.

In the field, Kyle is never far from best friend Tyler (Luke Kleintank), although a suggestion of the latter’s possibly bad behavior threatens this bond. But that friction never gets resolved; a sortie goes balls-up and, when the smoke clears, Kyle is dead.

Yakin handles this sequence with commendable restraint. Too bad he doesn’t continue in that vein.

Back in the mid-sized town of Lufkin, Texas, Justin and his parents are distraught: even more so when they learn that the traumatized Max, no longer fit for service, may have to be put down. Ray and Pamela can’t stand that thought, as the dog is their only remaining connection to Kyle. But the surly, self-centered Justin couldn’t care less, and actively resents being told to take care of Max.

Justin also is on the verge of turning into a bad kid, thanks to the illegal bootleg copies he makes of hot new video games, and sells to the thuggish older cousin (Joseph Julian Soria, as Emilio) of his best friend, Chuy (Dejon LaQuake). Emilio is Bad News personified: absolutely the last person with whom one should get involved. Even Chuy fears him, and he’s family.

Fortunately, Justin’s slacker, slightly larcenous tendencies start to diminish with the arrival of Chuy’s other cousin: a cute, tough-talking tomboy named Carmen (Mia Xitlali). Despite the hard edges, Carmen has her moral priorities straight; she also finds it surprising that Justin would disrespect his father so blatantly. Almost against his will, Justin realizes that he wants to become a better version of himself (and about damn time!).

Carmen also has a way with dogs, and teaches Justin how to bond with the wary Max. Cue the scenes we’ve been waiting for, as boy and dog gradually become inseparable.

This second act is the film’s heart, and it contains moments both exhilarating and poignant. The former is highlighted by a hell-for-leather ride through the woods, with Justin tearing through the underbrush on his bicycle, Max keeping up with no trouble at all. Stefan Czapsky’s cinematography and Bill Pankow’s editing are sensational throughout this sequence, and the result is quite exciting.

At the other end of the emotional scale, Justin’s awakening maturity reaches its welcome tipping point when he realizes, during his town’s Independence Day fireworks display, that the noisy explosions will terrify the still shell-shocked Max, left in an outdoor cage in their back yard. If the subsequent scene doesn’t raise a lump in your throat, as Justin hastens home and finally wins Max’s trust, then you’ve no business calling yourself human.

Alas, these good feeling are dashed by the story’s swift turn into violent territory. Yakin and Lettich really pile it on during this third act, which becomes increasingly nasty; matters also take far too long to resolve. One wishes for the more efficient pacing that Yakin and Pankow brought to the prologue.

That said, the star of any respectable dog movie is the dog, and — in that respect — Max delivers everything we could want, and more. The bulk of the title character’s “emotional” scenes are handled by a 2-year-old Malinois named Carlos, selected in part for his lighter-colored facial fur, so that his expressive eyes could be seen. Carlos handles all of his close-ups magnificently.

Yakin and animal coordinator Mark Forbes assigned the varied action scenes to a gaggle of “stunt doubles” named Pax, Jagger, Dude, Pilot and Chaos (the latter handling the bulk of the fast running sequences). Pankow’s cutting is extremely clever; you’d never suspect the filmmakers didn’t stick with one dog throughout.

The human actors hit the essential dramatic notes. Church is spot-on as a frustrated ex-Marine who can’t quite balance his authoritative tendencies with the subtler parenting skills necessary with a kid like Justin. Church also does a nice job with Ray’s intimate “confessional” scene with his younger son.

Graham is the softer yin to Church’s gruff yang. Pamela isn’t afraid to show her sorrow and vulnerability, which helps bridge the divide between father and son. LaQuake is appropriately smug as the goofball friend, and Soria radiates menace as the dangerous Emilio.

Wiggins overplays his part as a surly, smart-mouthed teen, but that’s not his fault; Yakin simply hammers those unpleasant traits too much. Justin becomes much more interesting when he softens, and his uncertain boy/girl dynamic with Xitlali in quite sweet. Indeed, next to Max, she’s this film’s biggest asset: an expressive screen newcomer with considerable presence. The camera loves her, and she returns the favor; Carmen is a great character.

Jay Hernandez stands out in a supporting role as Reyes, a sympathetic sergeant in the Marine K9 unit ... and a character ill-treated by Yakin and Lettich’s script. We exit the theater rather irritated by some unfinished business between Justin and Reyes.

It seems churlish to complain about a film made with such obviously heartfelt intentions, particularly in a genre so overlooked these days. The premise is sound, the “dog stuff” is always endearing, and many of the quieter character moments — particularly those involving Carmen — work quite well. I want to praise this film simply because it exists.

But the balance isn’t quite right. Yakin spends too much time with unhappy or unpleasant stuff — Justin’s initially hostile behavior, the needlessly vicious bad guys — and winds up overwhelming the nifty stuff. Max is a good try ... but probably not good enough to generate the box-office revenue that would encourage movie studios to make more like it.

And that’s the true shame.

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