For a certain generation of filmgoers, 1957's Old Yeller was an agonizing step into adulthood. The Disney film about an ill-fated Mastiff-Labrador in post-Civil War Texas was, in a word, cataclysmal. But it was also an essential lesson in life and death (and pet vaccinations), and bluntly challenged young audiences with a universal truth.
Decades on, the success of My Dog Skip, Shiloh and Marley & Me signals an enduring appeal in a film about a boy and his oft-in-peril dog. Max, the canine offering from Remember the Titans director Boaz Yakin, is no different. Nudging the genre along with mixed results, Yakin gives us the expected animal hijinks, adventure and pure, blissed-out Americana filmgoers expect of the subgenre, alongside a contemporary edge that attempts to examine the effects of war.
We first meet Max, a smart-looking Belgian Malinois, in Kandahar, where he works as a precision-trained military dog alongside his handler, U.S. Marine Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell). An introductory sequence tells us that Max is one of 3,000 dogs working for American troops across Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shortly after, while the troop is out on manoeuvres, Kyle's childhood friend and fellow Marine Tyler (Luke Kleintank) fails to heed the dog's warning to hold back and an ensuing enemy attack kills Kyle. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Max returns stateside where he is in danger of being put down, until Kyle's mother – played by small-screen adolescent-whisperer Lauren Graham – insists the family adopt him during a kennel visit, after the dog instantly bonds with the Marine's surviving brother Justin (Josh Wiggins).
Although at first Justin would rather play Mortal Kombat, it is an historic fact that not even mercurial teenagers are impervious to the affections of a pointy-eared dog, and the pair grow predictably close. Harmony is shortlived, however, when Tyler returns home and prompts Justin to question what happened to his brother overseas, throwing the family into danger with local arms dealers (yes) and culminating in an improbable action-packed third act that serves up heroic antics across the board.
While the structural shortcomings in family-friendly films about animals are often discounted for what is often a purely emotional connection sought by viewers, Yakin doesn't condescend to his audience, and infuses his plot with a surprisingly ambitious and revealing commentary about the experience of war.
Tyler, for instance, is heavily disillusioned by Afghanistan upon his return – an anger that ultimately motivates criminal behaviour – while Justin clashes with his ex-Marine father over the latter's unquestioning nationalism. Although it's dubious how much of the political subtext the film's target demographic will take away, it adds another level to what would otherwise be a rote animal saga. Also noteworthy is Yakin's gracious treatment of his star canine, forgoing the meme-generating cute overload for a serious portrait of a lifesaving companion.
Considering its myriad strengths, though, it's a shame Max is treated to an exhaustive adventure sequence in its third act that quashes the delicate nuances Yakin nurtured throughout the film. Heavy, ridiculous and interminable action rings false and feels incongruous to Max's toned-down sensibilities, ultimately forcing a pat ending for a film that could have served to further challenge its audience. Instead, it falls back on what's expected of the genre's revered canine heroes – and just in time for the Fourth of July.