(2015) * 1/2 Pg
111 min. Warner Bros. Pictures. Director: Boaz Yakin. Cast: Luke Kleintank, Thomas Haden Church, Josh Wiggins, Lauren Graham, Jay Hernandez.

/content/films/4806/1.jpgThe family movie Max has an agenda, but then most family movies do. Your mileage may vary as concerns the messaging: Max proudly wraps itself in the flag and, by association, links all-American patriotism with military righteousness, religious faith, and socially conservative family values.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that (cough, cough), but this “Boaz Yakin Movie” (appropriately not credited onscreen as a “Boaz Yakin Film”) predictably panders to its demographics without much in the way of artfulness. The title character is a “hero dog” that does prototypical dog hero Rin Tin Tin one better: not only is Max a military dog of the Shepherd breed (Belgian Malinois from Operation Enduring Freedom to Rin Tin Tin’s WWI-vet German Shepherd), but Max suffers from battlefield PTSD, giving this throwback canine adventurer a modern spin. A four-legged U.S. Marine, Max sniffs out arms bound for the Taliban, but when his handler Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell) is killed by underground arms dealers, Max suffers a nervous breakdown and finds himself shipped stateside to Texas.

Now wildly aggressive, Max relocates some calm when he meets Kyle’s brother Justin (Josh Wiggins of Hellion, untaxed here) and recognizes the boy’s family resemblance to Max’s beloved master. But Justin’s a disrespectful punk, given to swearing, zoning out in his video games, and sporting an implicitly snide “’MERICA” T-shirt. He has no interest in taking responsibility for a dog, much less anything else. Still, Justin’s father Ray (Thomas Haden Church), who fought in Iraq, insists, seeing the dog first as a connection to Kyle and later as the one responsible for Kyle’s death. Even as Ray turns on the dog, Max wins over Justin, who socializes Max around the neighborhood kids.

Yakin (Remember the Titans) and co-screenwriter Sheldon Lettich stoke some romance between Justin and local dog lover Carmen (Mia Xitlali) and awkwardly inject conflict with cardboard villains: Texan arms dealers and a cowardly Marine (Luke Kleintank) late of Kyle’s unit. Though the leading players are teens and their parents, none of this is likely to be compelling to anyone outside of a sweet spot of late grade-schoolers, though the flag-filled film is well positioned just before the Fourth of July, and dog lovers will awe at the impressive dog “acting” and stunts, and “aww” to the rescue-dog (in more ways than one) drama.

If the kids are dull, at least Church and Lauren Graham (as Justin and Kyle’s mother) lend a bit of gravitas amongst the clichés (although poor Graham has to sell a Waco-wacko line putting the sovereignty of family above the law). At best, military dogs get a nice tribute, and there’s something almost nostalgically charming about building a movie around dog stunts, but when Max isn’t leaping around, Max rolls over and plays dead.

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