A film review by Craig J. Koban May 19, 2022

DOG jjj
 

2022, PG-13, 101 mins.

Channing Tatum as Briggs  /  Jane Adams as Tamara  /  Kevin Nash as Gus  /  Q'orianka Kilcher as Niki  /  Amanda Booth as Tiffany  /  Aqueela Zoll as Callan

Directed by Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin  /  Written by Carolin and Brett Rodriguez
 

 

 

 

I have to be honest.  

I really had no desire to see this movie.   

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I'm a lifelong cat fan?  

I dunno.  I don't like to engage in animal kingdom bigotry, but if you've seen one odd couple human/canine flick then you've essentially seen them all, which is mostly why I went into the specifically titled DOG with a lot of trepidation.  There's absolutely no doubt that this film checks off many of the boxes for the multiple genres it operates in, whether it be the road trip comedy, the overcoming obstacles/inspirational drama or the healing oneself through animal therapy drama.  The arcs contained within are painfully preordained, but the more I watched DOG the more deeper the film became as a treatise on two military trained souls that gave it their all for God and country, but both find themselves on the negative receiving end of PTSD on the home front.  The fact that the two soldiers in DOG are a human and, yes, a dog is the compelling hook here, and watching them both soothe their respective pains through their budding friendship makes for an involving and surprisingly moving watch.   

That, and it shows that star Channing Tatum - who has spent a good chunk of his recent career producing as well as appearing in front of the camera in films like MAGIC MIKE and LOGAN LUCKY - has some decent chops as a director as well; he makes his feature film directorial debut alongside partner Reid Carolin.  DOG essentially examines - as mentioned - a powder keg relationship between an ex-Army Ranger and a wounded military canine that he's ordered to bring across the country to attend his handler's funeral.  Like his furry companion to be, Tatum's Briggs is damaged goods after being injured in Iraq.  Despite some severe injuries to his neck and back and his doctor's insistence that he'll never serve again, Briggs seems stubbornly determined to get back into the military via any means necessary.  Unfortunately for him, Briggs' bad boy tendencies and chemical dependency issues have not made him look attractive to the Rangers, leaving him desperate to find meaning and purpose in his post-army life.  The Rangers see one possible opportunity for Briggs to prove his worth and ability to rehabilitate his tarnished image: He's given an assignment to become the new handler of Lulu (played by three Belgian Malinoises), a dog that served her purposes in the military, but her original Ranger handler died in combat, leaving her homeless and without much of a future.  Plus, she's a real handful that doesn't seem too kind towards anyone outside of her first owner coming within five feet of her.   

Lulu is arguably in worse shape that Briggs.  She suffers from so much post-tour of duty anxiety and stress that she nearly tore apart three other potential handlers and sent them to the hospital before Briggs came along.  In fact, the Rangers thinks she's so beyond psychological repair that they've scheduled her for termination (cue the Kleenex!).  Briggs doesn't seem especially keen with his new assignment, but he's driven to take on this remarkably aggressive minded animal in hopes of scoring points with his higher ups.  It soon becomes clear, however, that Lulu is not an ordinary housebroken dog, but rather a meticulously trained killing machine that needs constant attention and muzzling in fear of her attacking just about anything in her sight.  Nevertheless, Briggs shows great bravery - if not some hopeless naiveté - and takes on Lulu, packs her into his ramshackle pick-up truck, and proceeds to make the long and arduous journey across America (from Portland to Arizona) so that she can bid farewell to her fallen comrade.  Briggs very quickly realizes the severity of this dog's mental state; she bolts without warning, bites and chews anything or anyone she feels compelled to and, worst of all, she simply doesn't like her new handler...at all.  The only thing that calms her is a dosage of Prozac, but even the somewhat dimwitted Briggs understands that he'll need a better strategy with her beyond constant meds if they are both to get the funeral in one piece.   

 

 

As mentioned, there are so many incalculable ways that DOG could have easily veered off course as yet another run-of-the-mill man and man's best friend bromance flick.  It's beyond obvious that the gruff and stubborn Briggs and the horrifically anti-social and Briggs-hating Lulu will come to enjoy each other's company and - awwwwwww - love one another through their bumpy road trip.  DOG, on paper, traverses pretty familiar territory, but what's fundamentally different here is its treatment of the human and non-human characters and how the film overall explores multiple facets of how debilitating military service can be for different parties.  To be fair, there have been an indefinite number of military themed dramas that have explored various facets of PTSD on soldiers, but the fresh element here is Lulu herself;  like all military service dogs, she's of crucial importance to combat missions.  Like her human companions in uniform, she's not impervious when it comes to mental suffering from the tortuous extremes of battlefield horrors.  Briggs and Lulu are, in many respects, reflections of one another.  Both served their countries, both become wounded - in more ways than one - during their tours, and both require meds to keep themselves going.  The one difference, though, is that only one of them is set for termination because of an inability to function outside of service.  This gives DOG a sense of urgency and unease in equal measure.  Lulu's fate seems predetermined and doomed after her road trip with Briggs. 

That's not to say, though, that DOG is an endlessly bleak affair.  Far from it.  Briggs and Lulu's road trip leads to considerable wacky hijinks as well, which mostly stems from Briggs engaging in some seriously questionable behavior during their travels.  They duo make many pit stops along the way, like one ill fitted hook-up that Briggs has with a couple of random women he tries to coerce sympathy from (based on his military record) to get them in the sack for a kinky three-way.  Even crazier is Briggs impersonating a blind veteran and using Lulu as his phony guard/seeing eye dog to score a free stay in a seriously posh San Francisco hotel (and, yeah, it goes south pretty fast).  One of their stops leads to one of the film's best sections, which involves a creepy backwoods older couple (played by Kevin Nash and Jane Adams), with the husband abducting Briggs and Lulu and taking them back to his secluded country home.  The whole affair begins with Briggs bound, gagged, and separated from Lulu and initially leads to some creepy DELIVERANCE vibes, but the manner that this ordeal radically changes and subverts audience expectations is one of DOG's many simple pleasures.  I like when films make me think they're heading in one distinct direction, only to completely change course of give me something refreshingly different.   

It's sometimes deceptively easy to overlook how good Tatum is as a performer.  I wouldn't go out of my way to say that he's an actor with tremendous range, but his All-American gumption, charm, and frequent self-deprecating manner have made him an easily winning presence in many films, which is no exception here in DOG.  And he brings considerable nuance to Briggs and doesn't play him with one-note flourishes.  Tatum is a beefy and limitlessly handsome movie star, yes, but he's quite good here are also playing up to this deeply flawed man's bumbling nature and his sweet tempered vulnerability.  It's a tricky role, requiring Tatum to navigate through a character that could have become a gruff and simplistic army type, but he thankfully makes Briggs greater than the sum of his perceived parts.  Of course, he has to act opposite of a dog throughout 90 per cent of the film, but he maintains credible chemistry with fellow four legged co-stars - Lana, Britta, and Zuzu respectively - who steal the film throughout.  I'm quite glad that Tatum and Carolin resisted the urge to make this dog overtly or too cutely humanized, which is one of my bug pet peeves when it comes to any film involving animals.  Lulu is indeed an adorable animal, but she's far from cuddly here.  

There are a few questionable creative choices here that do hold DOG back.  Firstly, there's a roughly inserted in subplot involving a blink-or-you'll-miss-her Q'orianka Kilcher appearing as Briggs' long estranged wife (she's given mere seconds of screen time, so little that you have to question why the script felt the need to include her and a daughter of Briggs in the first place).  On top of that, Briggs frequently engages in such outlandish self-destructive behavior that you're often wondering how this dumb lug thinks this is an effective re-entry strategy into the fickle discipline minded military.  And although DOG is sometimes beautifully shot, maybe there's a few too many magic hour Americana sunset shots and too many folksy country tunes on the soundtrack for the film's own good.  Still, I found DOG to be such an earnest crowd-pleasing entertainment that tells a tale of two wounded military soldiers, and the sensitive scripting respects their woes and earns - later on - the film's key emotional crescendos without making it feel to manipulative.  This is noble minded, well made and deceptively good film in the right places, and it's awfully hard to dislike, even for the feline lover in me.

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