You just know that someday, someone is going to unpack the scattershot, sundry, wildly erratic filmography of Boaz Yakin as the bizarre-world counterpart to that of Samuel Fuller’s restlessly diverse oeuvre, and laud Yakin’s latest zig-zag turn into the realm of jingoistic family filmmaking as his White Dog. Allow me to preemptively give that dog a bone. Max pays tribute (or lip service thereabout) to the service dogs and handlers in the U.S. military by stitching together a fictionalized variation on that viral news story about fallen Navy SEAL John Tumilson’s dog refusing to leave his side at the sailor’s memorial service. That image here returns with its political context radically simplified by how shamelessly the film plunders its pathos in the name of obedient PG-rated nationalism.
Max, a kewpie-eyed Belgian Malinois, is the right-hand pup for Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell), helping his master sniff out illegal weapon stockpiles in Afghanistan until an ambush leaves the Marine dead and his canine charge suffering from PTSD. The pooch is brought back to the States, where bitten and scratched military officials unload him onto Kyle’s only sibling, Justin (Josh Wiggins). The younger Wincott is everything his brother wasn’t: sullen, scrawny, and skeptical of the soldierly principle. In other words, the antagonist. He even mutters, during one of the last Skype sessions Kyle enjoys before his death, a slightly softened-down version of “How many civilians did you kill today?” while remaining fully engrossed in his first-person POV shooter video game. Oh, the irony.
Hokey though this all is, at this point the film is still on solid ground, and in spite of what appears to be a valiant tandem effort at sabotaging the entire affair by way of Justin’s parents, played by Thomas Haden Church and Lauren Graham—the former sporting the most ludicrous Texas drawl this side of James Van Der Beek, the latter apparently auditioning for a role in some speculatively forthcoming Paula Deen biopic. Both Wiggins, one of the hot new acting prospects on the block thanks to his performance in last year’s Hellion, and the dog are fine enough actors that Justin’s reluctant bid to rescue Max from his psychological torment, and possibly make psychic amends with his departed brother, is rendered in humane gestures, no more so than when Justin, while watching Fourth of July fireworks on Main Street, intuits that a caged Max is flashing back to Afghanistan and runs back home to comfort the trembling beast.
But then, Yakin clumsily chooses to append an at-best-misguided, at-worst-self-sabotaging secondary plot introducing another marine from Kyle’s unit who returns home a wounded hero, but who, for some reason, Max snaps and growls at whenever he shows up at the Wincott house. Sparing any potential spoilers, it’s enough to say that the film’s caper-laden second half would make Rin Tin Tin avert his eyes in embarrassment. If White Dog was a powerful screed against racism that was sadly misinterpreted as an endorsement thereof, Max dutifully hits its Red State beats so hard that its target audience likely won’t notice they’re being not only condescended to, but insulted outright.