Co-writer and director Boaz Yakin's "Max" pulls the Lassie story out of the 1950s and plants it squarely in post-9/11 America.
Marine Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell) is a specialist working in the Middle East with Max, a German shepherd sniffing out weapons caches and other threats. When Kyle dies attempting to rescue Max in a firefight, the dog is so badly traumatized that he is unable to be handled by anyone — except Kyle's teenage brother, brooding gamer Justin (Josh Wiggins).
As the two bond, Justin discovers that Kyle's Marine buddy Tyler (Luke Kleintank) is lying about Max's role in Kyle's death to cover up his own cowardice, and Tyler has gotten himself into shady illegal arms deals.
It might seem as though "Max" got its premise from heartstring-tugging YouTube videos of dogs at Army funerals, but the film is better than one might assume. A restrained performance from Wiggins keeps it from dipping too far into sentimentality, tempering the Rockwell-esque caricatures of his parents, played by Thomas Haden Church and Lauren Graham.
Graham's sharp wit is wasted on a role that is essentially maternal wallpaper. The performance of Carlos as Max, however, is worthy of mention, as the dog compellingly conveys different emotions. There are legitimately nail-biting action sequences and dog-on-dog combat fight scenes.
"Max" is a big slice of patriotic, down-the-middle genre fare, but it manages to work — and jerk a few tears along the way.
MPAA rating: PG for action violence, peril, brief language, thematic elements.
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.
Playing: In general release.