A wholesome family-film with just a hint of edginess, "Max" is named for its hero, a U.S. military dog who served in Afghanistan. It may or may not be coincidence that Max's handler was a Marine named Kyle (Robbie Amell, of "The DUFF"), which brings to mind Chris Kyle, the battle-hardened Navy SEAL of "American Sniper." In this movie, however, it's Max who returns home with post-traumatic stress syndrome, after his master is killed.
Initially, "Max" seems like a calculated bid to capture a certain kind of Middle American audience. It's set in a small Texas town where Kyle's younger brother, Justin Wincott (Josh Wiggins), is heading down the wrong path. He scoffs at his God-fearing mother (Lauren Graham) and his ex-Marine father (Thomas Haden Church). He's also dealing on the side -- not drugs, but pirated video games. When Max is given to the Wincott family, the troubled dog and the wayward boy may be just what the other needs.
"Max" can be corny, but writer-director Boaz Yakin makes it mostly work. For starters, the core cast is quite good. Wiggins, a young newcomer ("Max" is his third feature), plays Justin with the right balance of snark and sensitivity; Church, himself a former, Texas-raised Marine, is unimpeachable; and Graham never overdoes the waterworks. Max is capably played by several Belgian malinois.
"Max" is essentially a post-9/11 "Benji," driven by a fairly hokey plot in which Justin discovers that a corrupt Marine (Luke Kleintank, "Gossip Girl") is selling firearms stolen from Afghanistan. Along for the ride are Justin's love interest, Carmen (Mia Xitlali), and his friend Chuy (Dejon LaQuake). Yakin livens up even this material by giving some extra urgency to the chase scenes.
"Max" deserves credit for indulging in sentiment without laying it on too thick. Though we know the movie will end with hugs and reconciliations, Justin's anger doesn't dissipate easily. Any kid who openly sasses the war in small-town Texas has got to be a tough case.