Max—The AllMovie Review

★ ★ ★ ½

Does the dog die at the end? That’s the burning question troubling plenty of readers out in Internet Land right now, nervously checking if almost two hours with the kids at the multiplex is going to result in tears at bedtime. Film critics are not required to sign a blood oath vowing Thou Shalt Not Ruin It For Others, but this critic is tempted for the first time in her career to break the informal shibboleth against spoilers, precisely because it’s possible to feel the collective hand-wringing and worrying out there — not just from anxious parents, but from all stripes of moviegoers who won’t knowingly volunteer for that degree of emotional manipulation, thank you very much.

What is it about dogs that inspires this kind of tenderness? Roger Ebert identified it in a review of a film (not this one) in which three small, yappy dogs were offed for comic effect, noting that a sensitive friend who refused to see it for that reason “is never, of course, reluctant to attend movies where people die.” Perhaps it’s because dogs, at their most noble, show a devotion that’s unmatched in human relationships. Their eyes shine with the sort of eager, unvarnished gratitude we wish we saw in our spouse’s eyes, or our children’s. In fact, the archetypal dog name “Fido” means “loyal” in Latin — the same root found in the Marines’ motto, “Semper fidelis.”

Max the dog is a marine, too. He’s the canine partner for soldier Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell), and they do patrols in Afghanistan together. But when Kyle is killed in a treacherous accident, Max is also traumatized, rendering him ineligible for further duty. He’ll be put down unless Kyle’s surviving family in Texas take him in, which they do with a mix of grief and reluctance. Max initially dislikes Kyle’s teenage brother Justin (Josh Wiggins), while Kyle’s father and Gulf War vet Ray (Thomas Haden Church) refuses to let the dog in the house. He’ll let Kyle’s fellow soldier Tyler (Luke Kleintank) in the house, though. But something about the way Max snarls when the family “friend” comes over suggests that the gun-shy dog is the only one who knows the truth about what happened in Afghanistan.

This family movie might not be salacious (the screenplay contains hardly a single word of profanity and only one well-earned, passionate kiss), but that doesn’t mean it’s innocuous. There are guns and scenes of war. There are bad Mexicans, but there are also good Mexicans, like the lissome, dog-whispering Carmen (Mia Xitlali), who teaches Justin how to earn Max’s trust. There are bad cops and bad soldiers, as well as an acknowledgment of what happens when the powerless expose the rotten deeds of the powerful. There are life-and-death moments for both people and animals. But there are also moments of great vividity, of tearing through the woods with a dog at your side and choosing difficult honor over expedient disgrace. And there are great performances, particularly from Thomas Haden Church and Carlos, the Belgian Malinois who performs the bulk of Max’s role. None of this answers the burning question of whether the dog dies at the end, but let’s put it this way: Everything is going to turn out all right.