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Santa Maria Sun / Film

This weeks review

‘Max’ is a flawed crowd pleaser




Where is it playing?: Downtown Centre, Park

What's it rated?: PG

What's it worth?: $5.00 (Anna)

What's it worth?: $4.00 (Glen)

User Rating: 0.00 (0 Votes)

After U.S. Marine Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell) is killed in action in Afghanistan, his family agrees to adopt his traumatized military dog, Max. Dad Ray Wincott (Thomas Haden Church), mom Pamela (Lauren Graham), and their son Justin (Josh Wiggins) must deal with the loss of a family member as well as a dog suffering from PTSD. Meanwhile, Kyle’s friend and former fellow marine Tyler Harne (Luke Kleintank) returns from his tour of duty early and goes to work for Ray’s storage business, but he’s secretly trying to sell weapons he’s pilfered from Afghanistan. (111 min.)

Glen: I’m a sucker for dog movies. From A Dog of Flanders to Marley & Me, if there’s a dog in it, I’ll probably dig it like a bone buried in the backyard. So even though Max features a ridiculous story, fairly terrible dialog, and wooden acting among its youngest cast members, I still found a lot to enjoy about this tale of a brave and smart dog, its reluctant new adolescent handler, and their adventure to take down an arms dealer. The film opens with Max, Kyle, and their platoon on patrol, and it quickly becomes clear how important Max is to the safety of the soldiers. It also quickly becomes clear that Kyle’s friend Tyler has some ethical issues. Meanwhile, during Kyle’s Skype session with his family, we also learn that Justin is a typical selfish teenage at odds with his “hero” older brother and over-bearing father. Justin feels like he can’t live up to his brother and father’s military exploits, as both were combat marines. Initially, Justin resists caring for Max, but the first half of the film chronicles how he begins to bond with the dog in part thanks to Carmen (Mia Xitlali), a pretty cousin of his best friend Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), who helps Justin connect with the dog.

Anna: The film’s saving graces are Kyle and Justin’s canine companion Max, a fiercely protective, smart, and loyal friend who’ll stop at nothing to complete his mission. Dogs have been enlisted alongside soldiers dating back to World War I, and they’re not immune to the stress and strain that soldiers face even after coming home. After losing Kyle, Max is clearly distraught, biting and snapping at anyone near him. Except, that is, for Justin, who’s reluctant to take on such a responsibility in a typically teenage way. However, he soon sees why his brother held Max in such high regard, as well as the fact that having a dog is a total lady magnet. After learning some new tricks from Carmen to deal with this difficult dog, he makes Max his No. 1 priority. This movie goes to some pretty unbelievable places, and the cheesy dialogue does little to help it along, but it does tug on the heartstrings, especially if you’re a dog lover. If you can stop yourself from throwing your hands up at some of the utterly ridiculous situations, you may get just what you need out of this sweet and sappy film.

Glen: Yes, this is no award winner, and many of its plot machinations—from Justin’s strained relationship with his dad to the story’s attempts to inject Latino/Caucasian race tensions to Justin’s decision between going with the flow or being the hero—land with a thud to mature ears. But remember: It’s a film for adolescent boys. There’s off-road bicycling and derring-do, lots of boy chest-pounding as they struggle with manhood, rebellion against the older generation, videogame fixation, and the awkward romance between Justin and Carmen. If you’ve got an 8- to 13-year-old who isn’t wracked by cynicism, he’ll probably really enjoy it. It’s not that it’s a good film—any critic worth his salt will be forced to pan it—but it’s a potential crowd pleaser. It’s trying to press all the right emotional buttons, and there’s some fun chases through the forest on bikes; some great dog stunts; and Max, played by a dog named Carlos, is an appropriately badass German shepherd. Most 13-year-olds won’t notice everything that’s sub-par about the film and, instead, will immerse themselves in the story and action and fantasize about being the cool kid on the bike with the cool dog and the hot girlfriend. 

Anna: He’s actually a Belgian malinois, as Carmen points out when Justin describes Max as a German shepherd with a black face. They apparently used five different dogs in this movie, but handlers say Carlos is the star, and Max’s on-screen personality is very close to his. While Belgian malinois have been used increasingly by the military and police, they rarely make it to the big screen because of their dark faces, particularly the dark fur around the eyes. The eyes are used to convey a lot of emotion in film, and Carlos’ unique light facial fur meant he could act his little canine heart out, and we’d be able to see it all through his eyes. Bottom line: They found a great dog with a great back-up crew to really give this movie its center. I think it’s a perfect film to take your younger kids to; even kids under the teenybopper years will really enjoy watching as Max and his human sidekicks work to make the world a better place. We also watch Justin struggle through some real moral dilemmas, make mistakes, and try to right his wrongs—all good messages for young and old alike. If you don’t have kids, this one can wait for home viewing, where you’ll have plenty of tissue to clean up those pesky leaky eyes that inevitably come with a hero dog flick.

Sun Screen is written by Sun contributor and New Times staff writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at