Max the Belgian Malinois is by far the best thing about “Max” the movie.
As everyone knows, though, animals in movies (babies, too) are usually played by small litters of them, each individual chosen for specific skills or abilities. Interestingly, though, in “Max,” Max is reputedly played more than half the time in the movie by a very special dog named Carlos.
That dog, I’m telling you, is a star. There are emotional moments with all those dogs – many, apparently involving Carlos, the alpha dog – that are really quite remarkable, especially the sudden fear exhibited by those playing former war dog Max when an old nemesis from the war in Kandahar suddenly shows up.
There’s a very good reason why they couldn’t just be completely honest with this movie and title it “Rin Tin Tin” even though they probably should have.
This is just a sophisticated and soapy version of an “Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” episode on Saturday morning TV with a little bit of feature film complexity and peril thrown in to make this heroic-animal fantasy into good emotional-training fantasy for the younger ones.
The reason they can’t just get real and call it “Rin Tin Tin” is that old Rinty is an enthusiasm from a demographic group several generations ago. No one really knows Rin Tin Tin anymore despite his years of canine superstardom, and, frankly, it might be a bit of a burden for hype-slingers and publicity folks of all pedigrees to explain why they’re bringing one of America’s greatest canine heroes back.
So I’ll do it in brief: The original Rin Tin Tin was, in fact, a creature of World War I. A U.S. soldier named Lee Duncan in World War I rescued a kennel of beautiful German shepherd pups in 1918, gave one each to some of his war buddies and smuggled a couple of them back home to the States for himself. One of those dogs, it turned out, was a natural movie star.
That was Rin Tin Tin.
Twenty-seven Rinty movies later, plus kiddie TV in the mornings (with Lee Aaker playing Rinty’s boy companion, Rusty) and the heroic war dog was one of the two greatest canine heroes ever – the other, of course, being Lassie, the arrestingly beautiful collie who seemed to be the answer to every human problem in a surprisingly troubled small town.
Max, then, is a 21st-century war dog, not an ancestor from a blessed creature from six American wars ago. American soldiers in Kandahar use him for his tracking abilities, especially for things like weaponry and explosives. Unfortunately, when his Marine handler from Texas is killed, Max becomes too unsettled and unstable to continue in a war zone.
The dog doc explains to us all at home that animals, too, can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Enter, back home in Texas, the family of that soldier who was killed. It is Mom – a well-cast Lauren Graham – who articulates what becomes the family position on Max perfectly: “We take care of our own.”
And Max, whose loving human companion a world away is now gone, is family.
So there’s Max back in Texas dealing with Dad (Thomas Haden Church) an ex-Marine with secrets of his own and the young brother of his old master (Josh Wiggins) who’s a bit of a snarling, disrespectful brat at one of the worst stages of teendom.
The kid does a lot of fancy, extreme riding tricks on his bicycle and downloads video games illegally and sells them. He’s at the age where things could all go south in a big hurry.
But then Max comes into his life. And so, at almost the same time, does a smart-cracking girlfriend who happens to know a whole lot about training dogs – even beautiful German shepherds that have been trained, if need be, to use those magnificent teeth to rip enemies into shreds.
Guess who smartens and straightens up in a hurry?
All that’s left is for the newly righteous teen and Max to team up and rout a whole bunch of ultravillainous bad guys, including the older brother’s slimy best friend, who has told everyone back home that Max suddenly going nuts was indeed the reason for his handler’s death.
One look at Max when he’s at peace and you know that no animal that soulful could possibly turn on its master – especially in a movie, for pity’s sake.
A lot of stuff, then, needs to be settled by movie’s end. And it all is, of course.
Because Max was a canine Marine, there’s a surprising amount of “hoorah” in this drama but it seems utterly inarguable that the world is ready again for a brand-new kind of Rin Tin Tin movie.
Which, with merely a name change and a few updated details, is exactly like an old kind of Rin Tin Tin movie.
As Lee Aaker used to say on TV, “Yo-o, Rinty.”
Starring: Thomas Haden Church, Lauren Graham, Josh Wiggins and several German shepherds playing Max
Director: Boaz Yakin
Running time: 111 minutes
Rating: PG for mild action violence.
The Lowdown: Heroic war dog whose military handler is killed in Afghanistan gets adopted by the soldier’s stricken family.