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Runaway third act ruins strong start in 'Max'

“MAX” — ★★½ — Thomas Haden Church, Josh Wiggins, Lauren Graham, Mia Xitlali; PG (brief language, action violence); in general release

“Max” is a well-intentioned film that loses its message in a heavy-handed story.

It starts off with promise, building around the relationship between a boy and his dog. The boy is Justin (Josh Wiggins), a disgruntled teenager who spends his time wrapped up in video games in order to avoid his arch-disciplinarian father Ray (Thomas Haden Church). When Justin’s older brother Kyle (Robbie Amell) is killed in Afghanistan, relations between father and son go from bad to worse.

Right about here is where Max shows up. Max was Kyle’s dog overseas, a special canine trained to sniff out danger. He tried to steer Kyle clear of the trouble that got him killed, but a Marine with a checkered history named Tyler (Luke Kleintank) fouled things up.

After the incident, Max is unable to perform his duties, so rather than put him down, the military ships him to Kyle’s family. Max makes a quick, if pensive, connection to Justin, somehow sensing their brotherly connection, and the stage is set for a unique look at how people — and animals — cope with the effects of war.

This leads to some nice moments, especially as Justin befriends a local girl who has some experience with dogs (Mia Xitlali). The writing and acting won’t make any award lists, but as Justin and Max soften each others' hearts, a positive message begins to emerge.

“Max” reaches a high point with a tender moment that takes place during a Fourth of July celebration, and feels like it’s headed in a good direction. But from here, director Boaz Yakin decides to ramp up the action, and the results are an over-the-top disaster.

In a parallel story to Max’s rehabilitation, Tyler has been shipped home from Afghanistan. According to him, it’s for medical reasons. But when he tells Justin a suspect story about his brother’s death, a little investigation raises significant questions. One crazy turn leads to another, and by the third act, “Max” manages to pit Justin and his dog against a small-time black market arms dealer working for a Mexican drug cartel.

It’s an unfortunate and unnecessary path that undermines the sincerity “Max” displays through its first half. The film is meant to be a tribute to the role more than 3,000 trained dogs have played in the war effort, but a movie about those efforts would have been a lot more effective than a modern-day Lassie taking on an arms dealer.

Instead of inject all the melodrama, “Max” would have been better served by focusing on Justin and his family. Prior to his brother’s death, Justin is portrayed as a cynical teen with no appreciation for his country or Kyle’s sacrifice. But once the plot gets rolling, he makes an attitude change that feels way too abrupt and should have been more developed.

Church and Lauren Graham, who plays Justin’s mother Pamela, do the best they can with the material, but “Max” is much more interested in action than character development. The sad result is a noble film that starts strong but quickly circles the drain by the end of its 111-minute run time.

“Max” is rated PG for brief language, action violence; running time: 111 minutes

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.