A military dog returns from Afghanistan after his best friend is killed in the unusually dark and completely sincere family drama Max. The movie’s poster features a boy and his dog against the background of the American flag, which might lead you to expect jingoism for dog and country. But despite a frequently cookie-cutter script, the movie’s ideas, coupled with a subtly complex soundtrack, are greyer and more complicated.

The film opens in Afghanistan, where Max sniffs out danger for Kyle (Robbie Amell) and his marine unit. Kyle Skypes to his family in small town Texas, talking with his mother Pam (Lauren Graham) and his father Ray (Thomas Haden Church), who lost part of his leg in the Gulf War. But one family member refuses to talk: Kyle’s teenage brother Justin (Josh Wiggins), who wears a ‘MURICA shirt and deals bootleg video games, is cynical about his big brother’s efforts and would rather shut out the fact that he’s far from home.

Justin doesn’t get another chance to talk to his brother. Kyle learns that his human best friend Tyler (Luke Kleintank) has been stockpiling arms confiscated during raids. On a final mission, Max tries to warn Kyle and his men from danger, but Tyler insists they press on. Kyle is killed, and Max is sent to Texas to the military funeral. It’s a manipulative but genuinely gut-wrenching scene as Max mourns for his master, pawing desperately at his flag-draped coffin.

After Kyle’s death, nobody has been able to control Max, but when the German shepherd sniffs out Kyle’s little brother, he finds a reluctant friend. The film plays out as Justin overcomes his aversion to Max, to feelings and to responsibility and sorts out his relationship with his father. With the help of Mexican immigrant friends that include a dog-whisperer named Carmen (Mia Xitali), Justin gets to the bottom of what Tyler is really up to.

Much of the film is by-the-numbers family adventure, with kids on a bike accompanied by a faithful dog saving the day, but along with the usual notes the movie hits a few strange ones. Race relations are subtly conveyed in a scene of kids biking scored to an indie-band cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That,” itself an atypical track from George Clinton’s early career, more vocal group than guitar-heavy psychedelic funk. But the most telling musical cue comes on a day of celebration.

The town’s Independence Day parade begins with a marching band’s arrangement of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping.” Ray marches next to Tyler in the parade, unaware that Tyler is a traitor to his country; as fireworks go off, Max, kept in a cage back home, grows agitated, reminded of the war. Justin, conflicted about patriotic pageantry that feels hollow and violent, senses this and goes home to check on Max. How strange that the music you first hear during this patriotic event is an arrangement of a drinking song originally performed by professed anarchists?

Max pushes all the right buttons, and I don’t mean that in the conservative sense. This red-state set movie is more conflicted about the nation than you’d expect from entertainment that wears its stripes so proudly. Moviegoers have no reason to expect subtlety from writer-director Boaz Yakin, who scripted the ridiculous magicians’ heist thriller Now You See Me and directed Uptown Girls and the Jason Statham actioner Safe. Many of this film’s action scenes lack momentum, but a final set piece that combines action movie tropes with a rail yard that invokes Stand by Me mostly works. The script even gives its leads a chance to rise above family movie boilerplate and show some acting chops – Church in particular has an effective and telling scene with his son.

Suckers for animal movies will forgive the movie’s predictability, but even the jaded may find that its script and musical cues reveal an occasionally thoughtful film wrapped in multiplex sheep’s clothing. At nearly two hours, Max is too long, and its depictions of war and betrayal are probably too rough for the family demographic it targets. But it is a curious mutt indeed that broaches social commentary in its search for loyalty and heroism in a troubled land.

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