The spirit of Rin Tin Tin lives on in Warner Bros.’ “Max.” “Rinty,” of course, was the rescued German shepherd from World War I who went on to star in many pictures for the Warners studio. His ancestors later had their own radio and TV shows across several more decades.
Like Rin Tin Tin, Max, the wonder dog in this new movie, is not only a step ahead of his human companions (not to mention the villains), but manages to escape several near death experiences, save lives, fight and defeat bigger, meaner dogs and outwit the bad guys with only minor injuries to show for it.
Canine heroes clearly have been around for decades but only few lately so the “novelty” of a dog rescuing a family seemingly surrounded by villains should play nicely to family audiences. Other than cool dog stunts, however, “Max” offers only lame human characters and by-the-numbers writing.
Director Boaz Yakin (“Remember the Titans,” “Fresh”) definitely falls in love with his star but goes to sleep when humans are on camera.
The story, which he wrote with Sheldon Letich (“Rambo III”), starts off with promise but once the melodrama sets in everything grinds to a halt.
Trained military dogs have been deployed on battlefields since the First World War. So our Max — who’s actually a Belgian Malinois — is first glimpsed in action in Afghanistan with U.S. Marines. He fearlessly walks point for patrols entering hostile villages and sniffs out a weapons cache.
Then an ambush kills his handler, U.S. Marine Kyle Wincott (Robbie Ameil). Thoroughly traumatized and stressed out by any loud noise whatsoever, he gets shipped back to the States. He miraculously winds up in the same small town where his handler came from.
It turns out the only human Max can reconnect with is Kyle’s troubled teenage brother Justin (Josh Wiggins). So the family adopts him. The film now settles into a conventional coming-of-age drama about a boy and his dog and that same boy and his new love interest.
Watching Max find his way back into human society and relearn his once precise training with the help of Justin and his spunky new girlfriend, Carmen (Mia Xitlati), provides solid low-key drama. This all vanishes though when Max growls at Tyler Harne (Luke Kleintank), a fellow Marine newly discharged and arrived back in the same town.
Ah-hah, you realize, this must be the villain.
Whatever it is about this small town somewhere in America, it not only trains the military dogs, but supplies seemingly half the Marines, employs only corrupt or inept cops and serves as a conduit for stolen arms and munitions from Afghanistan to drug cartels in Mexico.
Busy little town.
All this nonsense is trumped up, of course, in order to get Max back on a battlefield albeit a domestic one. He certainly does his tricks, ranging from racing with kids on their bikes to leaping at villains, fighting Rottweilers, rescuing Justin’s dad Ray (Thomas Haden Church) and saving Justin from certain death.
The film uses its North Carolina locations well and gets the most out of the six dogs that play Max. If you’re a pushover for canines on screen, this might be your movie. Or alternatively check out the library of Rin Tin Tin movies on Amazon. It’s safe to say “Max” does nothing to advance the dog movie from its 1920s origin.
Opens: June 26, 2015 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures present a Sunswept Entertainment production
Cast: Josh Wiggins, Lauren Graham, Thomas Haden Church, Luke Kleintank, Robbie Ameil, Mia Xitlati
Director: Boaz Yakin
Screenwriters: Boaz Yakin, Sheldon Lettich
Producers: Karen Rosenfelt, Ken Blancato
Executive producers: Ben Ormand, Boaz Yakin
Director of photography: Stefan Czapsky
Production designer: Kalina Ivanov
Music: Trevor Rabin
Costume designer: Ellen Lutter
Editor: Bill Pankow
PG rating, 111 minutes