Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 2.5
A friend loves at all times, and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.
Teenager Justin Wincott (Josh Wiggins) is blessed with the kind of friends described in Proverbs. A talented video gamer and bike rider, he has his best friend Chuy (Dejon LaQuake) and the latter’s lovely cousin, Carmen (Mia Xitlali)—and then a four-footed one in Max. The Belgian Malinois had been trained by Justin’s older Marine brother Kyle (Robbie Amell) and accompanied him and buddy Tyler Harne (Luke Kleintank) to Kandahar where he sniffed out arms caches in Taliban-controlled villages. During a firefight Kyle is killed and the traumatized Max suffers injuries, more in his “mind” than body. During Kyle’s funeral Marine handler Sgt. Reyes (Jay Hernandez) brings the dog into the sanctuary, and the canine breaks away, rushing to the flag-draped casket, whining plaintively before it. Max will not let anyone touch him, though he does calm down when he smells Justin, apparently detecting something of Kyle in the stranger.
Earlier, during a Skype conversation between Kyle and his parents Ray (Thomas Hayden Church) and Pamela (Lauren Graham), Justin is close by, but far more interested in his video game than in seeing and speaking with his brother. Several times we see the potential issue of younger brother resenting the parents lavishing praise on older brother (see Ordinary People for an outstanding example of this), but this is not developed. As we will see, this probably would have been a much better film had writer/director Boaz Yakin explored this, rather than dropping on us an over-heated thriller plot midway through the film!
Because of his now vicious nature Max is scheduled to be put down, as Kyle’s Marine friend Tyler Harne had wanted to do in Kandahar. But, encouraged by Sgt. Reyes, the family agrees to take Max home with them due to the dog’s acceptance of Justin. The video game-obsessed boy isn’t too happy about this at first, thinking that he can thrust care for the dog onto his mother. “He’s your dog now,” Dad (Haden Church) insists. That first night is difficult, the dog chained in the back yard holwing so much that the pajama-clad boy is forced to go out and spend the night to keep the distraught animal calm.
The film seems like it will be an interesting twist on the war-damaged warrior that has become almost a genre of the war film today. Justin at first feels helpless, Max continuing to be unruly and threatening, but his biker and gaming friend Chuy encourages him—and best of all, introduces him to his tomboy cousin Carmen who is staying with his family. Carmen is confident as she approaches Max, able to touch and calm the dog enough so that Justin can take over. As Max responds to both “Sit” and “Heel,” Carmen tells Justin that he must always lead the dog, and not the reverse. We are shown in a humorous way that the girl has come by her dog handling knowledge because her Mexican family has collected at least a dozen chihuahuas. The size between them and Max is great, but their canine psychology is the same.
The film would have done well to stay with this theme of canine rehabilitation, as well as that of reconciliation between Kyle and his parents, especially the gruff father who is himself a wounded Marine veteran. Were it not for the more understanding mother, matters between father and son would spiral out of control, so showing the development of a rapprochement (such as the wonderful depiction in The Great Santini) could have resulted in a wonderful family film.
Unfortunately Tyler Harne shows up to express his sympathy to the family, but in reality, we soon see, to seek employment with Mr. Wincott because he knows the latter owns a storage bin rental service. There had been a hint at nefarious dealings in the Kandahar sequence when a superior officer tells the squad that a quantity of the arms from the cache they had uncovered are missing. We soon learn that Tyler is involved in a deal to sell arms to a Mexican drug gang that has a hold on Chuz and his family, and working at the storage bin facility, he can easily hide his illicit arms cache.
Well, the resulting action scenes, involving Justin and his friends biking at breakneck speed through the forested mountains, and Max becoming a super dog hero able to sniff out the villains under impossible circumstances, ruins the film. I was especially disappointed because writer/director Boaz Yakin wrote A Price Above Rubies and directed Remember the Titans, two films I really admire. I expected far more of him than this film delivers—and the sad thing is, all the elements for making this a fine film are there. At the conclusion of the unbelievable action segment there is a tribute to war dogs, going back to WW 1 when they were first used on the battlefield. We are told that 26 dogs and 25 of the handlers have died in the recent Middle Eastern wars, the pictures continuing behind the end credits. This would have been admirable, had the film not diverged from the story of Max and Justin, selling out instead for cheap thrills. As it is, this informative addition seems to be exploitive.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of Visual Parables.