The kid-friendly bizarre: Taliban weapons are being smuggled through small-town America by Mexican drug cartels, and it’s up to a Belgian Malinois dog and three BMX-riding teens to stop them. Like some toxic-sludge mutant grown in the racks of a mom-and-pop video store, Max crosses alarmist plotting with canine hijinks and hamfisted family drama that would feel at home in the era of the white clamshell VHS case. It is dull and weird—weird in that way that it is pronounced we-ee-eird, the stretched vowel signaling a weirdness that is probably unconscious on the part of the filmmakers. What to make of the character of the Afghan War veteran (Luke Klientank) who inserts himself into the life of a grieving family under false pretenses, à la The Guest? Or the prosthetic leg that is continually alluded to, but never shown? This is, after all, a movie whose star is a dog, and which ends with a drawled country cover of “Forever Young,” accompanied by a slideshow of dogs in military regalia.
Here, a Marine Corps dog is adopted by the family of its handler, who was killed in Afghanistan. Mustachioed dad Ray (Thomas Haden Church) is a veteran of the first Gulf War and runs a storage locker facility. Youngest son Justin (Josh Wiggins) spends his time burning CDs and hanging around with Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), the kind of movie best friend who begins every sentence with “yo,” as though it were a speech impediment. Mom Pam (Lauren Graham) doesn’t do much except cook and cry. This is the American nuclear family, as imagined by Boaz Yakin (Fresh, Safe), a director who specializes in awkward mixtures of sentimentality and genre, and co-writer Sheldon Lettich, best known for his work with Jean-Claude Van Damme. It is under threat from within and without by bogeymen: video games, software piracy, gun traffickers, small-town criminals who spend an inordinate amount of time threatening high-school freshman-age kids. Perhaps this story of a boy trying to live up to the example set by his valorized older brother would be more affecting if it didn’t end with a truss bridge being blown apart by a rocket launcher.
Max has no shortage of characters and subplots: ineffectual sheriff’s deputies, at least one of whom is in league with the bad guys; a Marine dog trainer who is unusually eager to provide classified materials to a teen; the aforementioned gun traffickers, engaged in a nonsensical scheme that involves seizing weapons from Afghan insurgents and then re-selling them; cartel thugs who look like they’re about go perform at a wedding and seem awkward lurking around the deciduous forests of North Carolina, which doubles here for a Texas border town. Yakin’s direction is too pedestrian to make much of the crazy-quilt plot; the best that can be said about it is that he handles a couple of dog-on-dog fight scenes with clarity, and limits his appeals to the target audience’s sense of patriotism to just once every five minutes. (It’s unclear whether the ’Murica t-shirt worn by Justin is ironic or not.) The movie’s only occasional bright spots come from Church’s committed supporting performance (he was good in Heaven Is For Real, too) and from the relationship between Justin and Carmen (Mia Xitlali)—one of the more credible teenage crush objects in recent memory—which provide Max with a handful of grace notes.