MaxcoverGrade: B/B-
Entire family: No
2015, 111 min., Color
Rated PG for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements
Warner Bros./MGM
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Included: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

Max, released in 2015 and distributed by Warner Bros./MGM, is a family film that my family refused to watch. Why? Because they’d seen the trailer and had no interest in a movie about a U.S. soldier killed in action whose dog mourns him and has a hard time adjusting to life afterwards. They wouldn’t watch Marley & Me either, and as for Old Yeller? Forget it! No sad movies involving dogs!

So I watched it alone, thinking that for families that aren’t resistant to tearjerkers, Max is a good choice for movie night. Though it’s a little heavy-handed at times and sprinkled with occasional cheesy lines, it’s an engaging patriotic film, it’s an incredible journey for one dog, it’s a thriller involving piracy and gun-running, and it’s a coming-of-age story about a young boy who doesn’t care about anything besides his video games, when we first meet him.

Maxscreen1Newcomer Josh Wiggins stars as low-end teen Justin Wincott, who learns in short order that his older brother serving in Afghanistan was killed. But viewers already know that, because the first act acquaints us with Kyle (Robbie Amell) and his relatively unusual assignment. He’s a dog handler, and this film is dedicated to the 26 dogs and 25 handlers who died in battle. Viewers see how dogs are used to walk ahead of troops to make sure it’s safe and also to sniff out weapons caches—though to give the screenplay a little Hollywood twist, Kyle’s best friend, Tyler (Luke Kleintank), is mixed up with a gun-smuggling operation.

But Max is the focus, and the scene my family saw on the trailer is one that will jerk plenty of tears out of you, as this Belgian Malinois (think German Shepherd) is brought to the funeral and lunges at the casket, putting it’s front paws on it, then slumps to the ground. After that, it’s a story about how Max gets over his post-traumatic stress syndrome and loss of owner through Justin, whom he senses is a blood relative to his beloved Kyle. As happens with the dog in Air Bud, Max is also the agent by which his new young and reluctant handler comes out of his shell and, in this case, straightens out.

Maxscreen2Mia Xitlali appears as Carmen, the somewhat clichéd feisty Latina who just happens to be visiting her cousin Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), Justin’s best friend. Not only do you get attitude with this girl, you get a potential first-love interest and a dog whisperer who helps Justin learn how to click with Max. But a story that’s essentially about a dog and teens needs a few adults to anchor it, and Thomas Haden Church (Sideways, Broken Trail) and Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) fill the bill. There are some surprises and there are some familiar plot devices, which collectively make Max a B-range movie because it ultimately succeeds at what it attempts. The acting is decent, the production values are decent, and the script is decent enough. If you ignore those occasional clunker lines and familiar turns, Max is an exciting, feel-bad feel-good film.

Language: One or two mild expletives, tops
Sex: n/a
Violence: Brief battle action
Adult situations: Some smoking and drinking
Takeaway: Family movies can be corny and predictable, but this one actually has some surprises, and there are enough exciting moments to balance the cheesy ones.