Even within the strictest formulas of today’s superhero-driven Hollywood, the experienced craftsman with a genuine enthusiasm for the form can find precious moments that are able to accommodate his or her personality. One such example is the director Boaz Yakin, who, following a pair of personal indies (1994’s Fresh and 1998’s A Price Above Rubies, both based on his own original screenplays), has turned into a kind of low-key journeyman. Since 2000, his work has run the gamut: There’s been an uplifting, star-driven football drama (Remember the Titans), a female-led comedy (Uptown Girls), a little-seen, Night Porter–influenced psychosexual odyssey (Death in Love), and a New York City–set Jason Statham vehicle (Safe). Yakin’s new movie, Max, adds yet another genre to the fold — it’s a canine sort-of-weepie with war-movie coating — and Yakin executes the touching material with the expected serviceability.
Max begins in Kandahar Province, with golden boy Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell) spearheading a unit alongside his MWD (Military Working Dog) partner, a Belgian malinois named Max. With his nose to the ground and his tongue hanging out of his mouth, Max leads the troops through small villages, peering into windows and alleyways for hints of dangerous objects. Inside one residence, Max pauses over a specific region of the floor; Kyle investigates, and uncovers a deep pit stocked with firearms. But after reporting the finding to his superiors, Kyle learns that some of the weapons from the pit are missing, and he suspects that Tyler (Luke Kleintank), his wild-card best friend, may have pocketed them for his own eventual financial benefit.
Things turn worse during the unit’s next mission, when a miscommunication with Tyler results in Kyle’s death. Back home in Lufkin, Texas, Kyle’s family — father Ray (Thomas Haden Church), mother Pamela (Lauren Graham), and little brother Justin (Hellion’s Josh Wiggins) — is informed of the tragedy. On top of this, with Max suffering from hazardous PTSD in Kyle’s absence, the Wincotts are faced with a choice: take Max into their home, or consent to his being put down. With Max showing signs of responsiveness in the company of Justin, the parents agree to care for him — with the caveat that Justin, heretofore a shut-in, closed-off introvert with a video-game-heavy summer regimen, take primary responsibility for conditioning the dog.
Max’s presence initially proves a reprieve from grief and familial hostility. Ray, himself a wounded military veteran who runs his own storage business (the uniforms are bland, and the fridge is stocked with Coors), is pleased to see his youngest son apply himself in the task of taming Max. Justin, for his part, is helped in no small measure by animal-friendly Carmen (Mia Xitlali), the assertive cousin of Justin’s closest pal (Dejon LaQuake). (Carmen has a neck tattoo and wears My Chemical Romance T-shirts — needless to say, Justin is smitten.) But when Tyler comes knocking to pay his respects, Max’s instant hostility prompts Justin to look deeper into the cause of his brother’s death.
Most of Max, edited with predictable efficiency by Bill Pankow (a Brian De Palma collaborator dating back to 1984’s Body Double), consists of no-surprises narrative delivery. However, the unsavory character of Tyler — who has brought those stolen weapons home with him from Afghanistan — brings out the most in Yakin’s visual imagination. In one stunning, totally unexpected shot, as Ray soberly questions Tyler about the circumstances of his son’s death, Yakin shoots the conversation through a large, whirring fan. Later, as Tyler has a sinister heart-to-heart with Justin (“I’m a realist. I know which way the world turns,” he says), Yakin uses a similarly suspenseful ploy with the desk lamps in Justin’s bedroom. Were touches like this more consistent, Max might have transcended its generic template; as it stands, it’s another modest, functional success from a director who used to work on the margins.