Published Jun 26, 2015Boaz Yakin's Max is really sincere. Let me stress that again: It's really, really sincere and completely straight-faced, which makes its descent into pure madness in the final act an unexpected pleasure, as the titular dog and his boy take on the Mexican drug cartel with more violence than has been in any PG-rated film in recent memory.
There are guns and deaths and explosions and rocket launchers, in a film that's being marketed as a treat for the whole family about a bomb-sniffing dog who comes home and suffers from PTSD. By the end, Yakin has basically made a Walking Tall riff, complete with a half-hearted attempt at Southern exploitative sleaze... but for kids. It's one baffling choice in a film of dozens, but the film scrapes by on its commitment to its own straight-faced earnestness and old-school Boy's Own goofy charm. It's also considerably less racist and conservative than American Sniper, so Max has that going for it, too.
On that note, while the marketing for Max has been going after the same crowds that brought in over $300 million for American Sniper back in January, Yakin's film is one of the more astonishingly anti-war films in a long time. While the film awkwardly tries to force a "for the troops" message in its opening and closing scenes, the material in between makes a clear argument for the ways in which soldiers feel abandoned by their institutions after coming home, suffering long-term trauma and economic hardships that they are forced to deal with on their own. The film is so didactic in its message that literally every soldier who comes home falls victim to these circumstances — even the dog.
It's a refreshing spin on recent war movies, and it works because it uses the same sort of nostalgia and affinity for classical Hollywood that Spielberg evoked in 2011's War Horse, but for a radically different aim. Unlike Eastwood's misguided patriotism, Yakin suggests true villainy is found in the internal corruption of the American military system.
The film posits that while all of its military characters might be "good" soldiers in terms of their proficiency on the battlefield, they are terrible people who lie about their service, fudge and give away confidential documents, steal weapons to sell back home, or get involved in gangs. The only good military character we encounter in the film is Max's former owner, and he dies in the first five minutes. Who knows what type of terrible secrets he was hiding?
But don't think Yakin is playing any of this for social realism. This is a truly insane film that operates on its own insane logic. When, hundreds of years from now, our descendants try to understand how our society operated, let's hope they don't find Max. This is the sort of film in which a small-town Texas guerrilla war with the drug cartel breaks out because a young boy pirates a video game, or a former war dog's PTSD is cured in part by a Manic Pixie Dream Girl's home cooking.
And while the film successfully sets up some interesting riffs on after-school special lessons about violence and trauma in the first two acts, Yakin abandons all of that in the final act to become First Blood, maintaining its Capra-esque sincerity and affection for small town virtues while firing hails of gunfire down on those very same virtues. It's kind of hard to describe, but it's awesome. And for that, and for being a deceptively great anti-war film, Max gets a pass.