Max (2015) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements
Running Time: 111 min.
Cast: Josh Wiggins, Thomas Haden Church, Lauren Graham, Luke Kleintank, Dejon LaQuake, Mia Xitlali, Robbie Amell, Jay Hernandez, Owen Harn, Joseph Julian Soria
Director: Boaz Yakin
Screenplay: Boaz Yakin, Sheldon Lettich
Review published June 26, 2015
I think it's about time I just come to grips with the fact that I don't like Boaz Yakin's style of movie-making. Uptown Girls is one of the worst films I've ever seen, and Remember the Titans, while others praise, I found cloying, clumsy, and manipulative. Those are just his directorial efforts. His screenplays include the Dolph Lundgren version of The Punisher, Prince of Persia, Now You See Me. This reads like a list of films that might qualify for Vince's "Worst Imaginable Single-Filmmaker Movie Marathon Ever."
You can now add Max to that growing list.
The titular Max is a Belgian Malinois, used in Afghanistan to sniff around for hidden caches of weapons. Alas, tragedy strikes when his handler, Kyle Wincott (Amell, The DUFF), is killed in a firefight, leaving the dog with PTSD. Unable to be used in the field any longer, Max is brought back to Texas to attend Kyle's funeral shortly before he is going to be euthanized for his propensity to lash out in violence. In honor of Kyle, the Wincott family decides to take Max in as their own, letting Kyle's lazy, aimless brother Justin (Wiggins, Hellion), who seems to be one of the few people Max responds to kindly, in charge of his well-being.
'Corny' is a word that can describe many efforts that aim for the 'family film' demographic, but Yakin seems to farm his corn as if it is a requirement rather than an incidental by-product of homogenized storytelling. It isn't just a tale of a dog and his interactions with humans who care for him so much as a wonder-pooch who forms psychic connections with the world around him, able to read minds, detect future patterns, and make things happen as if he were a canine Jedi. Then there's the rampant jingoism on display, as Yakin tears whole pages out of the 'God, Country, Family' playbook, where a Christian cross and a waving American flag is framed somewhere in every scene, and just stuffs them unedited right into his screenplay.
The acting is all over the place, probably because the characterizations and dialogue some are given is horrendous. Max comes off best, probably because he has no lines other than 'woof'. Lauren Graham (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), an actress who has been very appealing in past roles, comes off the worst, in a thankless role as Justin's daft mother, Pamela. She's given an easy jump shot in her one moment to shine late in the film in a confrontation with police officers, but she underplays the moment so much that she bricks it. The 'Jar Jar Binks Award for Exasperating Sidekicks' goes to Justin's Hispanic-by-numbers best friend Chuy (LaQuake), who somehow has adopted his own dress, slang and manner of speaking wholly independent of his environment or the people around him. You know he's 'cool' because he ends every other sentence with affectations like, 'Yo', 'B', or 'Cuz'. Equally cartoonish is Carmen (Xitlali), Chuy's cousin and obvious love interest for Justin once you find out her main facet is that she understands dogs, and might share their psychic abilities as well, which is pretty convenient timing for the sake of the storyline. Josh Wiggins and Thomas Haden Church (Heaven is for Real) will survive the ordeal for making the most of it, but they've done and will do better than this.
But even worse than the bumbling attempts to build characters is the burdensome plotting, which introduces a villain in the form of Kyle's fellow Marine in his unit, Tyler (Kleintank, Phantom Halo), and his inability to stop his obsession with hording stockpiles of military weaponry and selling them to the black market, which he has determined he wants to do (conveniently, for the plot's sake) in Kyle's home town. Max, ever the psychic, sees Tyler for the loathsome creature he is, as evidenced by the conniptions he displays whenever the disgraced Marine gets in his line of sight.
This may be the most violent PG-rated film I've seen in the last few years, with plenty of explosions, gunfire, pistols pointed in people's faces, and confrontations involving humans on humans, dogs on humans, humans on dogs, and dogs on dogs. The scenes of dogs fighting are particularly hard to watch, and realistic enough in execution to make Michael Vick throw money at the screen. According to the MPAA, can't let your kids hear an F-bomb, but if half of the cast gets blown up by a real bomb, not much of a problem, so long as they don't say the S-word just before it goes off. It could be forgiven had Yakin been going for realism, but this is so clearly manufactured hogwash designed to patronize a particular audience used to wanton spoon-feeding of themes in their entertainment.
It's a film too violent to really be a good film for all families, too difficult to watch for dog-lovers who can't bear to see the sight of canines constantly harmed, too overdone in sentimentality to avoid feeling manipulated into tears, and too unbelievable to make for a realistic depiction of the how dogs are useful in times of war. In other words, it's a movie that has no real audience except for people who like any movie that shamelessly pushes enough buttons of chauvinism to get them all in a dander if a film critic like me derides it. If there's one thing I've learned about flag-waving filmmaking over the years, it's that if you wrap yourself up in an American flag, somehow, you are immune to attack without it being considered an affront to the United States. Double that if its characters go to a Christian church. Double yet again if country music plays over the end credits. I can guarantee that any hate mail I receive for my pan of Max will be a political diatribe rather than a point-by-point defense of it as a good film.
Well intentioned as it may be, as they say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. As a movie, Max is pretty good at sniffing out a whole cache of clichés along that long and winding road to cinematic oblivion.
©2015 Vince Leo