The title character of "Max" is the "Rambo of dogs," says screenwriter Sheldon Lettich, and he knows whence he speaks. In fact, Lettich's history with Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme helped get "Max" -- the story of a canine veteran of the war in Afghanistan -- the military aid it needed.
"When we first were discussing the idea, Boaz and I got in touch with the Marines," Lettich said, referring to director Boaz Yakin. "They weren't going to give us help because we had no script. So I said, 'I was in the Marine Corps myself; take a look at my papers. See I'm not full of it. And I'm going to send you my IMDB page, too.' "
Lettich's writing credits apparently changed military minds. "They love 'Rambo III' and 'Bloodsport,' " he said. "The guy said, 'Here's the number of the animal guy at Camp Pendeleton. Call him."
The filmmakers did, of course. They learned about dog handling, dog training, and the sometimes unhappy fate of war-vet dogs. The result -- "Max," which opens Friday and stars the humans Thomas Haden Church, Lauren Graham and newcomer Josh Wiggins -- marks a return to what was once a standard of Hollywood production, and Hollywood lore: The dog as leading man.
As Susan Orlean ("The Orchid Thief") wrote in her 2011 book, "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend," the famous German shepherd was the star of 13 silent films, helped Warner Bros. survive some tough times, enjoyed massive audience appeal, endorsement deals and a $2,000-a-week salary, at a time when that figure was a lot more breathtaking than it is now.
With all due respect to Lassie, there are a number of parallels between RTT and Max (who is played by five different dogs), among them the war connection (RTT was found among an abandoned litter on a French battlefield during World War I) and the big-screen exposure of lesser-known breed of dog: The Belgian Malinois, a shepherd type increasingly being adopted by police and military around the world.
In "Max," the central canine is a Malinois and a "specialized search dog," which the dog-loving Lettich said was among "the most highly trained and smartest animals -- they will go out in front of a patrol up to 300 meters. They'll search sides of the road for ambushes, sniff ground for explosives, and do it all completely off the leash and out of earshot of the handler. They're not normal dogs. They're highly trained war machines."
The title dog in "Max" has been trained by a Marine named Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell) who is killed early in the film during a Taliban attack. Max is sent home, but has bonded so fiercely with Kyle, and Kyle alone, that his future looks bleak -- until he encounters Kyle's much younger and far less together brother, Justin (Wiggins), who is guilted into taking on his brother's unhappy dog. The dog in turn is called upon to cope with everything from adolescent angst to illegal arms dealers.
"No one had done a dog movie in a long time," said Yakin, "not one that had a real canine protagonist, one treated with respect and intensity, like Rin Tin Tin or even 'Old Yeller.' Not an anthropomorphic dog, not a cute dog, and not a comedy dog. Once we came on the idea for a military dog that was the hook and it stuck."
There's a considerable degree of violence, human and animal in "Max," but Ray Beal, one of Hollywood's hardest-working animal wranglers, said it's never quite what it appears. "What looks like dogs fighting is dogs playing," said Beal. "You have two dogs that really get along and you put them together and you pull them apart. We get them primed to play, but you can only let it go on so long. You can also only have a male and female dog do the playing, because two males wouldn't work."
It all goes back to the editing room, Beal said, where judicious cutting and the application of dramatic music makes it all seem very serious and dangerous.
"I think it could take its place as a classic of the family movie and dog movie," said Lauren Graham ("Parenthood," "Gilmore Girls"), who plays Justin's mother, and knew she had to more or less "get out of the way."
"I knew it was the dog's movie," she laughed. "With most things I do on film or television I bring my personality, my spin, but the focus here was on something else. It's not a message movie, but it's a great way to honor all those families who've sacrificed for the war, as well as acknowledge this great history of military dogs and their trainers. It's kind of amazing, you know, that it hasn't all been front and center long before."
Director Boaz Yakin has knack for films that go off the beaten path
A wise man (W.C. Fields) once said, "Never work with children or animals." Director Boaz Yakin would disagree.
"A motivated intelligent kid is the greatest person to work with," Yakin said, "because they have no ego, and in the case of Josh ["Max" star Wiggins], he just said, "This is the situation and I am gonna do what I have to do." What he had to do was deliver an emotional performance while animal handlers were screaming all around him (much of the dialogue in "Max" was rerecorded in postproduction).
For Yakin, a dog movie was simply one of the few things he hadn't done, in quite a varied career:
FRESH (1994) This story of a 12-year-old drug dealer negotiating the urban jungle was a hit at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival and part of a wave of socially conscious indie street dramas. Alongside young Sean Nelson were some now-familiar faces, including Samuel L. Jackson, Guillermo Diaz and Giancarlo Esposito.
A PRICE ABOVE RUBIES (1998) RenAe Zellweger played the discontented wife of a Hasidic Jew (Glenn Fitzgerald) who finds sexual solace with her unscrupulous brother-in-law (Christopher Eccleston). This Yakin-scripted drama featured quite a bit of creative casting.
REMEMBER THE TITANS (2000) Denzel Washington stars as the coach of a newly integrated high school football team, in this fact-based sports drama with a very deep bench a supporting players included a young Ryan Gosling, Hayden Panetierre, Kate Bosworth and Donald Faison.
UPTOWN GIRLS (2003) A free-spirited young woman who acts like a child becomes the nanny of an 8-year-old girl who acts like an adult. The ever-brilliant Dakota Fanning starred, alongside the late Brittany Murphy.
DEATH IN LOVE (2008) A Jewish womanas affair with a Mengele-like character during her time in a concentration camp warps her two sons in this Yakin-scripted story starring Jacqueline Bisset, Josh Lucas and Lukas Haas.