"Semper fidelis," the Romans used to purr into their dogs' ears, long before the Marine Corps adopted the Latin for "Always faithful" as their motto.
Most faithful of all? Marine Corps war dogs. That's the message of "Max," a touching if somewhat clunky crowd pleaser about one such dog who comes to live with the family of the soldier who died serving with him in Afghanistan.
One day, Max, a Belgian Malinois, is serving with his handler, Kyle (Robbie Amell) in Kandahar, sniffing out arms caches in villages controlled by the Taliban. An ambush leaves Kyle dead and Max refuses to leave his side.
Kyle's Texas family, played by Lauren Graham, Thomas Haden Church and Josh Wiggins, are still in shock over the awful news when Max is brought to Kyle's funeral. I don't know if this really happens at military funerals. But you'd have to be an ISIS sympathizer not to be tear up at this moving final reunion.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Trouble is, Max is in shock, inconsolable and too erratic to return to duty. The Wincott family -- one-legged Corps vet dad, mourning mom and rebellious teen Justin -- take him in.
"He's your dog now," dad (Haden Church) growls. Justin (Wiggins) has to put down the video games and try to calm a distraught animal that howls in the night, shakes in fear at fireworks and only will bond with the boy who smells like his beloved Kyle.
Justin gets little help from his sassy pal Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), a lot more from Chuy's even sassier cousin, Carmen (Mia Xitlali). Their family's part of a long line of chihuahua hoarders.
Director and co-writer Boaz Yakin, whose best credit was "Remember the Titans," shoves weighty subplots about Justin getting mixed up with crooks, thanks to his talent for burning copies of unreleased new video games, and the nefarious activities of one of Kyle's comrades from the Corps. That gives Max a chance to battle the bad guys' dogs and perform almost supernatural feats of tracking.
All the eye-rolling melodramatics may be crowd-pleasing, but it lengthens and clutters up the film.
The script, co-written by combat vet turned hack screenwriter Sheldon Lettich ("Lionheart," "Legionnaire," "Rambo III"), shoehorns in promising ideas like Justin's dad's intolerance and how "war hero" is sometimes an over-statement. And the film wraps itself in the flag like a lazy country music song.
But the heart of Max is a boy growing up and learning to understand an always faithful dog. As sentimental and manipulative as their bonding moments are, they make "Max" work.
You don't have to speak Latin to know a darned good dog, and a passable dog movie, when you see one.
2.5 stars (Grade C+)
Cast: Josh Wiggins, Lauren Graham, Mia Xitlali, Thomas Haden Church, Dejon LaQuake, Luke Kleintank
Directed by Boaz Yakin, script by Sheldon Lettich and Boaz Yakin. A Warner Brothers/MGM release.
Running time: 1:51
MPAA Rating: PG for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements