150627maxAs the new film in theaters, “Max,” points out, there are many military dogs and their handlers and trainers who have served our nation nobly and saved the lives of our men and women in uniform in every conflict since World War I. They deserve to be saluted.

They also deserve a better movie than “Max.”

It’s clear the makers of the film were aiming for something like “Lassie” meets “American Sniper,” a story about a hero dog whose handler is killed in combat and has a hard time adjusting to life back home. When the dog, Max, grows attached to his former handler’s younger brother, the film becomes a redemption story – both for the dog and for the younger brother.

But “Max” never really lives up to its aspirations. Instead, it comes off like an old “Afterschool Special”: positive, sweet, and family-friendly, but plagued by bland acting, an uninteresting and predictable script, and amateurish filmmaking.

It also feels just a tad patronizing. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but a movie devoid of creativity that features a dog, a church choir, forced Southern accents, a Fourth of July parade, and a graveside salute smacks of just throwing bones to “red-meat” Americans without actually giving them any meat to chew on, an effort to market a subpar product by simply making it “patriotic.” All “Max” is missing is the hot dogs and apple pie.

To be honest, this one feels like it was made to go straight to DVD. And if you’re a dog-lover or want a decent movie for the kids or want a movie that reinforces your values, rather than assaulting them, you could do a lot worse that looking up “Max” on Netflix in a few months.

For I have to admit, the worldview of the film is solid enough. The teenage protagonist of the film, the younger brother, begins the story bitter, self-absorbed and resentful of his older brother honored as a “hero,” simply because of his military service. The younger brother wears a T-shirt illustrating the point, emblazoned with the pejorative term, “‘Murica,” across the front. Yet he’s challenged throughout the film to care for others, to show loyalty to his family, to respect his father and mother, and more.

The Hallmark moment is when he’s told by his father, “A hero always tells the truth, no matter what the consequences or what happens to him.”

The messages work their magic, and by the end of the film, the younger brother discovers he can be a hero, too, especially with Max by his side.

At every junction, it’s clear the heart of “Max” is in the right place. I can recommend the film based on its messages. I commend it for reflecting positive values. I just can’t commend the quality of filmmaking that went into it.

Content advisory:

  • “Max,” rated PG, contains only a few minor near-obscenities and profanities.
  • The film also has very little sexuality: a shirtless boy, a bit of leg, one lewd reference (“cajones”), some teenage flirting and one kiss.
  • The film does have some notable violence relevant to the story, but it’s played down. For example, there’s a war scene, but the killing happens in a cloud of smoke, and there’s no bloodshed depicted. Some men brandish guns threateningly, but the only thing that’s shot is the radiator of a truck. Guns and rockets fire, but no one is wounded. There are, however, some scenes of dogs fighting each other, which may be traumatic to younger viewers, and there is a scene where a man falls (presumably) to his death, his body seen on the rocks below. Max also barks, snaps and attacks various characters and suffers a grave injury himself.
  • The film contains a few, overt Christian themes and no overt occult themes. At a funeral, for example, a choir sings the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.” A mother and son have a terse discussion about what God “hears in your mind” when you nearly cuss. A character proclaims, “I’ll be damned.” A song over the final credits sings, “May God bless and keep you always.”

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