It’s hard to fault a movie for being schmaltzy when it’s as unabashedly virtuosic in its efforts to pluck at your heartstrings as “Max.” The drama about the bond between a troubled youngster and his troubled dog is as nakedly sentimental as these things come, and they don’t come along often these days, not since the Rin Tin Tin and Lassie tales of yore. But “Max” also is polished, utterly effective moviemaking.
Of course, it helps if you’re a sucker for the sort of clickbait videos about loyal, brave and true canines that seem to clutter up certain Facebook news feeds these days. (Guilty as charged.)
It also doesn’t hurt if you’re younger than 10. Rated PG for some bloodless war footage and shooting, “Max” is the kind of old-fashioned, family-friendly fare that some nostalgic moviegoers complain they just don’t make anymore. (To which critics respond: Even when they do, they’re garbage.)
“Max” is not garbage. It may be hooey, but it’s artisanal hooey.
Directed by Boaz Yakin (“Remember the Titans”) from a script written with Sheldon Lettich (“Rambo III”), the movie is the story of small-town Texas teenager Justin Wincott (Josh Wiggins) and the dog he inherits when the animal’s previous companion, Josh’s Marine brother, Kyle (Robbie Amell), is killed in Afghanistan. Max, a Belgian Malinois trained as a military working dog, is suffering from a kind of canine PTSD and is violently unmanageable except when he’s with Justin. The boy, as one might expect, is a bit unmanageable himself. He has a contentious relationship with his father, played by a nicely low-key Thomas Haden Church, who sets his character’s disappointment in his younger son on simmer and leaves it there until the movie’s inevitable reconciliation.
The rest of the cast is uniformly good, with Wiggins delivering an especially nuanced performance as a boy living in the shadow of his war-hero brother. Lauren Graham brings a warm groundedness to the story as Justin’s mother. And Dejon LaQuake as Justin’s best friend, Chuy, and Mia Xitlali as his (eventual) girlfriend, Carmen, bring a bit of bickering comic relief to the proceedings. Only Luke Kleintank as Kyle’s war buddy Tyler — and the movie’s villain, who is hiding something about how Kyle died, along with one or two other nefarious secrets — could use a tighter leash.
Max growls and bares his teeth every time Tyler shows up. The dog isn’t the only one who can smell the character’s villainy a mile off.
Despite the overplaying, “Max” gets its job done, which is to celebrate the sacrifices of military dogs, while warming the cockles of your heart. Sugary though it may be, the movie is a spirited return to the values of 1950s Hollywood. They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes the old tricks are enough.
PG. At area theaters. Contains violence and brief, mild vulgarity. 111 minutes.