To be fair, Max begins quite strongly, showing a lot of potential. U.S. Marine Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell) is struck dead during a mission in Kandahar and his dog Max can’t cope with the loss. Back home, Kyle’s parents Pamela (Lauren Graham) and Ray (Thomas Hayden Church) are dealing with their younger son, Justin (Josh Wiggins), and his totally apathetic, devil-may-care lifestyle. Once informed of Kyle’s death, they decide to adopt Max in order to keep him from being euthanized. There’s a heartbreaking funeral scene that finds Max lying at his fallen handler’s casket. Justin is initially reluctant to care for the skittish, depressed canine but something about Max’s vulnerability wins him over. Plus the dog is Justin’s only connection to his departed older sibling.
So far, so good. Early on there is every reason to believe Max will be a deeply touching ‘boy and his dog’ film, not to mention a heartfelt tribute to military service dogs. But director Yakin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sheldon Lettich (Rambo III, Lionheart), loses the plot quickly and resoundingly. A wildly incongruous tonal shift turns Max into an action movie about corruption and drug cartels. Max’s slow but steady progress in overcoming his PTSD is hindered by the reappearance of a former comrade of Kyle’s, Tyler (Luke Kleintank), who was involved in illegal arms dealings. Tyler tries convincing the Wincott family that Max is an irredeemably bad animal, even suggesting that Max was responsible for Kyle’s death. The whole thing spins wildly out of control, becoming more and more convoluted (not to mention startlingly violent and dark-themed for a supposed family-friendly film).
In short, after a strong first act that does indeed promise something special, the filmmakers utterly trash everything good about the film and send it down a rabbit hole from which it can’t hope to possibly climb out. By the time the end credits, which include images of real military service dogs, roll it’s a safe bet you’ll be wondering, “WTF was that all about?” (assuming you’ve even made it that far). Max is an insult to the very subject to which it’s purportedly paying tribute.
On the bright side, Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray offers sterling 1080p, high-definition imagery that highlights three-time Tim Burton collaborator Stefan Czapsky’s cinematography (his distinctive work on Edward Scissorhands was recently restored; see our review). The soundtrack is DTS-HD MA 5.1 and former Yes band member Trevor Rabin’s score sounds great. From an aesthetic point of view, Max should have toned down the action-oriented nonsense. But from a technical point of view, it really shows off an excellent-sounding disc.
Special features are light: two featurettes is all. “Working with Max” offers about five minutes of dog training footage. “Hero Dogs: A Journey” is short (about eight minutes), but is nonetheless a good little overview of the importance of dogs in combat.