“Don’t give him this [treat] until he lets you touch him,” instructs Carmen (Mia Xitlali). Justin (Josh Wiggins) looks at her blankly: he’s been trying to pet the dog Max for days. Why can’t I just give him the treat? He wonders. “It’s a reward,” Carmen explains, “You have to deserve it.”
This concept, that you might earn something, that a cause might have an effect, hasn’t occurred to Justin. Until this encounter with Carmen, Justin’s been another angry white boy, waiting for just this sort of revelation en route to redemption, the sort that tends to be delivered in movies about angry white boys in need of revelations and redemptions.
This movie, Max, mostly uses the titular dog as its delivery method, with Carmen a means to that end, and she and Max more or less tag-team Justin’s salvation. His anger appears to have deep roots, but the film begins here: Justin’s Gulf War veteran father, Ray (Thomas Haden Church), loves his other son Kyle (Robbie Amell) best. A marine in Afghanistan, Kyle is working with Max when the film starts, and within five minutes, he’s dead in an ambush, when Max’s warning goes unheeded. This event involves Kyle’s childhood friend and current fellow marine, Tyler (Luke Kleintank), instantly identified as the villain, cowardly, cruel, and deceptive as Kyle goes down, then blaming Max for his mistake. When the military returns the traumatized Max stateside, he bonds instantly with Justin, whose relationships with his dad and his warm and generally perfect mom Pam (Lauren Graham) are in tatters.
Carmen arrives on the scene — a small town in Texas — right around the same time as Max, introduced by her cousin and Justin’s best friend Chuy (Dejon LaQuake) as, “like the chick version of Cesar Milan.” That is, she knows about treats and rewards, how to set boundaries and how to model good behavior and be a pack leader. It helps too that she shows up wearing a cap with fur earflaps, can stunt a mountain bike as well as Chuy or Justin, and is utterly cool and fearless.
If only Max were smarter about Carmen’s coolness. Instead, she provides conveniently dispensed dog knowledge and inspiration for Justin, whose plot is immediately more complicated than it needs to be, as he must figure out not only his father-son and dead-brother business, but also a subplot concerning a gun cartel, featuring not only the insta-villain Tyler (selling stolen AKs and RPGs) but also a few dastardly Mexicans (one being yet another of Chuy’s relatives).
These many complications might recall director Boaz Yakin’s clever, if formulaic, first film Fresh, wherein a 12-year-old drug seller and chess whiz (played beautifully by Sean Nelson) outsmarts older dealers and cops. Here that basic story is spread out against a broadly patriotic and actionated backdrop, with chase scenes and shootouts, not to mention a few dog fights, pitting Max against scary cartel dogs. If these last come with the heroic-dog-saga territory, they’re used here along with some astounding tracking, intuiting, and even acting feats to make Max into the Most Amazing Dog Ever (he is, in fact, beautifully played by several Belgian Malinois).
That Carmen recognizes Max’s amazingness before anyone else in the movie makes her your mostly likely point of identification. But Max can’t get out of its own way here, plunking Carmen into its cluttered plot as if she’s yet another movie boy’s appendage. More than once she and Max see what you see, and what no one else does, and more than once you see what no one else sees, as when Tyler lies outright to Ray about how Kyle died, a scene initially framed through a fan mounted on a wall, a view so strange and impossible that the metaphor — the prison of grief? Ray’s limited vision? Tyler’s dark designs? — seems secondary to the bizarre experience of the shot.
Indeed, that view through the fan, which is brief, might set in motion an entire set of questions, about movie making and viewing, about causes and effects, about efforts and rewards. In this context, Max‘s muddle is like those of so many movies, with dogs or dinosaurs or comic book heroes, that assume more is more. More explosions, more emotional crises, more stereotypes, spun as if by a centrifuge of formula then spewed onto a big summer screen. It’s more that’s not a reward, not deserved, not even that much fun. It’s more that’s just more.