Good Americans love dogs and war and, of course, dogs that have been to war. Bad Americans love none of these things. And if your child is a burgeoning bad American who ostensibly opposes the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, you'd best get that demon seed a dog — preferably one that has been to war — because it just might teach him to believe in America again.
That is the baseline premise for Max, a bizarre, beguiling "family" movie about an incredible canine war veteran with PTSD who's tethered to a petulant, pinch-faced tween named Justin (Josh Wiggins). Max (who's played by a dog named Carlos) is a Belgian Malinois — a breed of dog that looks somewhat like a German Shepard but appears to be more agile and nimble — and he and Justin are bound together by fate and smell. Justin's better-looking and better-liked brother Kyle (Robbie Amell) was Max's human partner in the Marines, and Justin presumably smells like his brother, so he is able to earn Max's trust after Kyle dies in combat. Together, Justin and Max navigate Justin's puberty, Max's PTSD, Justin's relationship with his grumpy father, Ray (Thomas Haden Church), various encounters with Taliban arms dealers, and the dealings of a Mexican drug cartel that operates in the shadows of a Texas suburb.
"We're just an ocean of pixels in a dog's eyes," Ray tells his wife, Pamela (Lauren Graham), during the film's jagged opening.
It's a clear invite for moviegoers to counter that dog movies, especially those involving canines as adorable and acrobatic as Max, are actually much more glorious than Ray describes. Unfortunately, his words linger and ultimately resonate, as there are points when this strange film devolves into political incoherence. Instead of a heart-warming tale about a superhuman dog — which is really what everyone is here for — it becomes something that resembles a Red State fever dream, full of pro-war sentiment that will make you wish it would disintegrate into a bowl of pixel stew.
Max is American Sniper reimagined through the eyes of a dog
The movie's director and screenwriter, Boaz Yakin, has said that he wanted to make a film about military working dogs (MWDs), their role in the recent wars America has waged, and the impact of those wars on the dogs. And for about 15 percent of the film, that's what we see. Due to an incident in Kandahar that involves heavy gunfire and results in Kyle's death, Max is scared of fireworks and loud noises, and distrusts people. There's even a powerful (and manipulative) moment where Max howls at Kyle's casket, pawing helplessly for his late master.
But despite the multiple pieces of YouTube evidence that millions of people will watch anything involving dogs and war veterans, Yakin wasn't satisfied with Max being just a dog movie. And that's the film's biggest problem. Yakin could have created a touching tribute to MWDs, but he ultimately loses that thread in a blaze of fearmongering glory.
The tale that Yakin and fellow screenwriter Sheldon Lettich spin resembles the work of someone who was deeply upset by the tragic ending of American Sniper and reimagined the Bradley Cooper film in a world where the "good guys" win. Yakin isn't content to restrict his star to fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, so he plunks an orphaned Max down near the Texas-Mexico border. In those suburban streets and bucolic forests, an unnamed Mexican drug cartel has bent the minds of the town's most respected individuals in order to obtain military-grade weapons smuggled in from raids on Taliban outposts — and somehow, this all connects back to Max.
The idea that a hyperviolent Mexican drug cartel needs weapons specifically from Afghanistan is a tremendous leap of logic, almost as tremendous as Lauren Graham's "Texan" accent. But it serves to illustrate a simple point: Max is the one that must save this Texas town from an influx of scary brown people, despite every adult male in this movie possessing a firearm.
Max then becomes a bizarrely political screed, with Yakin lacing in jabs at anyone — particularly liberals and non-Texans — who identifies as anti-war. The film is obsessed with the idea that "good" means following orders, and the unshakable belief that America has its citizens' best interest in mind. There is no middle ground, no place where a bad war and good soldiers can co-exist. War cynics like Justin become the film's ungrateful villains.
For example, in the first half of the movie, Justin is a caustic little gremlin clad in a "'Murica" T-shirt who bemoans Kyle and the Afghanistan War while playing video games. Justin's insolence is contrasted with his brother's heroics — the angry adolescent versus the virtuous soldier making Skype calls to his family from Kandahar.
"I'm a realist," the film's big bad (whose identity I won't spoil) says toward the end of the movie, while explaining why he thinks the wars in the Middle East are America's way of sending its blue-collar workers to fight on behalf of defense contracts.
That the film deliberately chooses to present its villain as a "realist" instead of an "opportunist" is telling. Coupled with Justin's initial anti-war sentiments (before Max teaches him to believe otherwise), it paints realism as the enemy, thereby making the good guys the ones who will trust the US government no matter what. Idealists are the heroes in this story, and there is no room for an idealist who believes the wars in the Middle East were a mistake.
Max, despite his Belgian roots, is a good American. He can sniff out the bad guys, but once he makes his home in Texas he's surrounded by hardheaded and sometimes evil "realists" who discredit or refuse to listen to him. Yakin's injection of politics into Max is exhausting, and by the end of the film, I was left feeling winded and ultimately wondering where cats fit into this world.
Does Max die in Max?
Audiences generally don't like to see dogs die in movies. And if a dog is going to die — whether it's in Marley and Me or All Dogs go to Heaven — many people want to know about it going in.
Max does not die.
The film's creative team is fully aware of this apprehension, and frequently engages in dog death brinkmanship. As I mentioned above, there are multiple instances in which someone pulls a gun on Max, but being shot isn't the only threat he faces during the movie's 111 minutes. He's also bombed in Afghanistan, bitten by a Rottweiler, almost put to death twice (once by the pound and once by the Army), falls off the side of a rural Texas cliff, is threatened by a neighbor, and gets jammed into multiple cages along the way.
Max's death never feels too far away, which yields plenty of dramatic tension. But this tension also begins to feel manipulative by the second time someone threatens Max with a gun. The moments in which his life is threatened become cheap ways to snap you out of your daydream, to get you to care about what's happening on screen not because it's particularly important, but because it's supposed to be shocking.
Lost in this shuffle of bullets and narrow misses is Yakin's stated goal of telling a story about the great service that military dogs provide, how devoted they can be, and how violence affects them, too. I'm not sure where that film went, but the bizarre, violent mess I saw isn't it.