MOVIE REVIEW: MAX
June 25, 2015
With summer in full swing and the kids out of school and parents looking for some entertainment for not only the kids, but themselves and something they can do as a family, movies are a traditional respite. The problem becomes, however, finding that family friendly entertainment beyond the guaranteed awesomeness of Disney and Pixar which, by the way, is in top form this summer with “Inside Out.” (If you haven’t seen “Inside Out” yet, run to your nearest theatre as fast as you can). But this weekend, the solution to your problem is MAX.
Inspired by true stories of Military War Dogs (MWD) adopted by U.S. families after a dog’s service in Iraq and Afghanistan, writer Sheldon Lettich and director Boaz Yakin team up to bring a poignant, heartwarming, tail-wagging story of hearth and home, family, friendship and loyalty, all as told through the eyes of a boy and a dog. And yes. Bring tissues; plenty of tissues.
Taking us from the battlefield of Afghanistan to Anytown, USA (or small town Texas as MAX would have it) and the Wincott family. Ray Wincott is a former Marine, retired due to injuries suffered in Viet Nam. His wife Pamela is the peacekeeper in the family, bridging the communications gap between youngest son Justin, and Dad. Justin’s older brother Kyle is proudly following in Dad’s footsteps, serving in the Corps, something repeatedly thrown in 14-year old Justin’s face and which, of course, leads to less some rebellious teen behavior like bootlegging video games. And Max, well Max is a Belgian Malinois trained to search for guns and ammunition the locals are selling to the Taliban. Kyle is not only Max’s military handler, but the two are inseparable best friends.
While out on a mission, Kyle is killed. Grief stricken but holding up in the grand tradition of the military and the Marines, the Wincotts are presented with what has become a newer opportunity in the military. They have the chance to adopt Max. Their last connection with Kyle, Pamela needs no urging to bring Max home with them, especially when the only person Max connects with now is Justin and she realizes that the death of Kyle which has so adversely affected the family, has also emotionally scarred Max. Ray, on the other hand, isn’t too keen on this reminder of Kyle. And Justin wants nothing to do with Max. But Pamela and the K9 commander Reyes see and feel something in Max’s immediate connection to Justin.
Needless to say, Justin does form a bond with Max, but not without the help of his best friend Chuy and Chuy’s “dog whisperer” cousin Carmen. But the road of friendship is a rocky one to say the least, especially when Kyle’s childhood friend and former Marine who fought alongside Kyle, Tyler Harne, returns from service early. Pleading shrapnel injury received during the same firefight that killed Kyle, something doesn’t sit right about Tyler. Justin feels it. Max knows it. And it’s the suspicions of Max and Justin that serve as the basis for not only their fast-growing bond, but further distancing between Ray and Justin.
As Justin learns more about Kyle and his service, as well as the relationship between Kyle and Max, he starts to see the truth of what happened in Afghanistan, and the truth about Tyler. Together with Chuy and Carmen, Justin and Max embark on their own harrowing mission that uncovers a ring of gun smugglers involved with the theft and sale of military grade AK-47s.
Josh Wiggins resonates with 14-year old authenticity in the role of Justin. Carrying the laboring oar, along with the six dogs who play Max (in particular, Carlos, who was the main canine performer), Wiggins captures all the emotions of not only teen angst, but the anger of loss and estrangement, the feeling of being less loved than another sibling, and the coming to terms with acceptance of friendship. The strongest and most defined character arc in the film, Wiggins more than proves his mettle from beginning to end, delivering palpable emotion.
Standout is Mia Xitlali. As Carmen, newcomer Xitlali delivers an independent, strong willed, intelligent performance that sets a good tone for teen girls; Carmen has not only a love of animals but great knowledge of them, can outride any boy on a mountain bike and has just enough sass and common sense grounding to keep herself and those around her on an even keel. There is not a moment you don’t want to have Carmen as a friend in your corner.
Another relative newcomer is Dejon LaQuake who provides great comic relief and foil as Chuy. Reminiscent of a young Moises Arias or Shia LaBeouf, put LaQuake on your radar now. Likeable and energetic but with bouts of guilty nervousness, LaQuake’s Chuy adds a lighter touch to the film as a break from heavier thematics.
No stranger to fans of “Bones”, “Gossip Girl”, “Pretty Little Liars” or even “The Young and the Restless”, Luke Kleintank shows us a darker edgier side of himself than we’ve seen before. As Tyler Harne, Kleintank expertly walks a fine line of deceit, drawing the audience deeper into the sub-plots that emerge as the film progresses. A slippery slope that bodes a fine performance.
Lauren Graham and Thomas Haden Church are on board as Pamela and Ray Wincott and although serviceable in the roles, each feels miscast, almost as if forcibly holding back on their performance and emotional range. Church especially is very one note for the bulk of the film, perhaps too much so, until the final moments of the third act. Notable is Jay Hernandez who steps in as, Sergeant Reyes, K9 commander stateside. Hernandez is the embodied essence of a Marine.
The greatest gift to MAX, however, is Max himself as played by six different Belgian Malinois, most notably lead canine actor Carlos. Carlos was always ready for his close-ups while Jagger, Pax, Dude, Pilot and Chaos tackled the various action modes complete with jailbreaks, heroism, running in mountainous terrain, and in a particularly terrifying key scene, dogfights with Rottweilers. You will want to take all of these dogs home with you.
Thanks to scribe Sheldon Lettich, a former Marine himself and owner of two Belgian Malinois, through some well crafted dialogue we learn something about MWDs and about the relatively new program that allows the MWDs to be adopted by their handlers and/or families after their service ends. Interesting is that the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts is the first time in history the US has embraced this. Prior thereto, during Viet Nam in particular, MWDs were left behind or euthanized due to fear of disease being brought back to the US. Sprinkled throughout the film as dialogue and/or plot points we see and learn about MWD training, hear about the importance of their work in the military, and the PTSD which the dogs suffer right along with soldiers. Given access and the cooperation of the K9 unit at Camp Pendleton, Lettich’s research is impeccable. But, despite the information MAX does provide on MWDs, there is so much more that I would have liked to see included for an even richer texture, focusing more on the first act and the importance of the bond between MWDs and their military handlers, giving some more strokes to the canvas of Kyle and Max’s backstory. Surprising is that the script never preaches about the Marine Corps or the military. Enough information is disseminated for the purposes of character and ethics, not only with dialogue but with costume and visual character construct so as to tacitly paint the portrait.
Particularly touching is a Fourth of July scene which is the turning point of the film for the character of Justin as he recalls being told by Sgt. Reyes that because of that final firefight which killed Kyle, Max is petrified of loud noises, car backfires, etc. as it takes him back to that fateful day. Recalling this, Justin races home from the town fireworks celebration and climbs into the large cage in the Wincott backyard in which Ray had put Max. Not only is the scene so well written and performed, filled with tacit emotion, but it is lensed beautifully by director Boaz Yakin and cinematographer Stefan Czapsky.
Yakin, who also co-wrote the script with Lettich, is no stranger to films predicated on tension filled crimes, nor is he stranger to bringing coming of age stories to life with truth and authenticity. One look at Yakin’s resume and films like “Uptown Girls”, “Safe” and “Remember the Titans” blended with that of Lettich’s Jean-Claude Van Damme action films like “Blood Sport” and “Double Impact”, as well as “Lionheart”, and you get a sense of the depth of their collective storytelling. Although cliched vehicles help move the story along, interesting are the sub-plots that unfold and the thematics addressed with each cogently interwoven and resolved by film’s end, as well as the character dynamics and individual personalities that in most of the cases go beyond cookie cutter.
As mentioned, cinematographer Stefan Czapsky creates some beautiful imagery along with capturing the horrors of war. Thanks to the July 4th sequencing and the Afghanistan firefight, we see two sides of the visual coin, each distinct in its look, but equally powerful with visual emotional tension and cohesiveness that keeps the film from becoming disjointed. Also appreciated is the travelling camera lens that follows Justin, Carmen and Chuy through the woods on their bikes, providing vicarious excitement (and longing for summers days of youth long past) for the audience. Standout are some dogfights between MAX and two Rottweilers which will have you on the edge of your seat thanks to Czapsky, editor Bill Pankow and animal handler/trainer Mark Forbes. Lensing in Asheville and Charlotte as stand-ins for Texas, Czapsky finds beauteous locations that celebrate and capture the sense of small town community Americana.
And how about a 21-paw salute to Mark Forbes who worked heroically with the six Belgian Malinois who played MAX along with five Rottweilers who served as two on screen characters, plus six Chihuahuas!!!
Directed by Boaz Yakin
Written by Sheldon Lettich and Boaz Yakin
Cast: Lauren Graham, Thomas Haden Church, Josh Wiggins, Luke Kleintank, Mia Xitlali, Dejon LaQuake, Jay Hernandez
For more information on Military War Dogs, check out the US War Dogs Association at http://www.UsWarDogs.org.