A Marine battalion on patrol in Afghanistan gets caught in an ambush. It takes heavy Taliban fire, and in the spray of bullets, the unit’s dog handler, a young man from Texas goes down. And when his fellow Marines attempt to help him in the mess of smoky chaos, they cannot get to him. The handler’s otherwise friendly bomb-sniffing dog who had, despite the commotion, sensed his partner’s injury, climbed on top of his body to shield him—protecting him from anyone, enemy or friend.
I could be describing one of the pivotal early scenes in Max, the first true war-dog blockbuster directed by Boaz Yakin (of Remember the Titans), which opened Friday, June 26 in theaters across the country. Indeed there is a scene in the film exactly like this. Only what I’m describing is what actually happened to Marine handler Pfc. Colton Rusk and his bomb-sniffing dog Eli in Afghanistan in December 2011.
Indeed, the beginning of this film feels very reminiscent of what happens to the Rusk family. Just as the Rusks brought Eli home to live with them in Texas after Colton was killed in Afghanistan—something that is fairly rare and involves a rather lengthy approval process—the movie family, the Wincotts, bring Max the Military Working Dog (MWD) home to live with them after their elder son, Kyle, a Marine dog handler (played by Robbie Amell), is killed during a firefight in Afghanistan.
The plot of Max (which thickens exponentially and continuously throughout the film), only really takes off in the Wincotts’ hometown in Texas, and not in the throes of a warzone. And the pivotal relationship in the film is not between Max and his Marine handler, but between the now-retired (and war-traumatized) Max and the family’s younger son, Justin (played by Josh Wiggins). Though Justin at first appears to be nothing like his respectful, dog-loving big brother, he and Max form a slow-to-warm but eventually unshakeable bond.
So while the premise of Max could’ve easily been modeled off the Rusks’ experience— one with which I’m going to bet the film’s screenplay writer, Sheldon Lettich, was well familiar—unfortunately for moviegoers, the similarities end there. And it’s really too bad, because for all Max’s wild and unwieldy plot twists, its action-packed chase scenes, shoot-outs, and even its earnest attempts to pay tribute to hero veterans—canine and human alike—nothing in Max is as interesting as the real-life war dogs or their real life stories.
Indeed, there are a lot of scenes in Max that smack of actual MWD stories—ones with which war-dog aficionados like me are well familiar. Early on in the film, during Kyle’s funeral, Max rushes onto the somber scene, panting and straining against his leash to the front of the church, to place his paws up on the coffin. Though he wasn’t technically a war dog, Hawkeye, a Labrador retriever belonging to Navy Seal Jon Tumilson who was killed in Afghanistan in 2011, captured hearts around the world during Tumilson’s funeral when the dog made his way to the coffin and stayed there for the duration of the service.
At many other points in the film, Max displays his valor; he is a smart, brave dog who can also run as fast as teenaged boy can pedal a mountain bike. Max can distinguish the bad guys from the good, even when they’re hiding in plain sight, and proves himself a dog willing to protect the new partner he’s found in Justin no matter what danger they face together—which eventually includes outlaw Marines, gun smugglers, and agents of a corrupt sheriff’s department.
And in this way, Max is very much like a real dog. But the real stories of war dogs could have made for even more interesting, emotionally satisfying drama.
During World War I, in the Battle of Verdun, a messenger dog named Satan brought a communiqué that would save an otherwise doomed contingent of French soldiers, dashing through a hail of gunfire over some nasty trenches. And even when a bullet struck the dog and broke his leg, he wouldn’t deny the call of his handler and continued toward the sound of his voice until he made it through the breach. The men who were watching said Satan moved so fast, it was as though the dog was flying.
In the very first scene of the movie, Max uncovers an enormous weapons cache stealthily hidden in a Taliban-friendly house beneath an Afghan rug. That’s an MWD’s job—what a bomb-sniffing dog does. It’s why war dogs are so valued in war zones: they can smell what humans cannot and they do their job better than anyone—or anything—else. Take Chips, a mixed breed who hailed from Pleasantville, NY before he shipped off to fight in World War II. On one of his missions, this dog single-handedly overtook a bunker of Italian machine gunners, taking a shot to the head in the process. (Chips was such a badass that he bit General Eisenhower and got away with it.) For their finds during 63 combat missions in 2010 in Afghanistan, which included uncovering some 370 pounds of explosives, according to an Air Force press release, a single Air Force bomb dog team was credited with providing “safety to more than 30,000 U.S., host nations and coalition forces.”
And even Eli, the Black Labrador Retriever who crawled on top of Colton Rusk’s body during that firefight with the Taliban, wasn’t the first or only war dog to shield his handler in a battle. During the Vietnam War, a German Shepherd named Nemo did the same thing for his handler, Robert Thorneburg, after Vietcong fighters infiltrated a air base. Not only did Nemo protect his handler, but he took a bullet, too, losing an eye.
And then, of course, there were the handlers who did the same for their dogs. Army dog handler Army Specialist Mark Whittaker used his body to shield his dog Anax during a firefight in Afghanistan after they were caught in the open. When a fire blazed out of control in their barracks in July 2011 and handler Sgt. Christopher Wrinkle heard his dog Tosca barking trapped inside, he ran back in to find her. Neither would come out again.
I’ve got nothing against Max the dog (or the five dog actors who play him in the film). The MWD Max in this movie is a fine dog. But the fatal flaw of Max is that the film feels like a collection of cherry-picked stories from war-dog lore, selected for their blow-you-away details—Hollywood-ified spectacle with minimal emotional arc. Ernest Harold Baynes, a writer who was thought of by many as the world’s Dr. Dolitte and went to Europe to cover the work of animals in World War I for Harper’s Magazine, once wrote: “[T]he fame of war dogs may well rest on the splendid work they actually did; it needs no support from the stories of what some sentimentalists would like to believe they did.” Which is why Max’s most tender moment, and the one that rings the most true, is its most unadorned. It is a scene with minimal dialogue that takes place in the span of barely two minutes in the least exciting venue of the entire film: the family’s backyard.