For all of its challenging, head-scratching attempts at injecting awkward moments of morally defiant comedy, at the core of Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin’s Dog is a genuinely hard-beating heart. The type only doing its thing by speaking to our deeper emotional core. Films involving pets, those who may only be half of themselves in need of a human to complete their reason for living, are often bait for emotional robbery. But this venture, the first for both as directors, but not as producers and friends, is invitingly different. Once we look past the apparent Turner and Hooch parallels, the glory of a grand closure journey sees no difficulty in cutting through.
Tatum digs down to approach his center as former army ranger Jackson Briggs, a rather flawed hero facing a silent crisis. Out of the game for years, he’s battling a persistent brain injury, nightmare seizures, and blurry vision. All this time, he’s been itching to get back on the field after his latest medical clearance. He may soon get his chance, though only if he can fulfill a request by the family of a fallen comrade. Briggs reluctantly pairs up with Lulu, a temperamental Belgian Mal from his old infantry, saddling up in his worn-out Ford Bronco for a road trip from Oregon to Arizona, ahead of the friend’s funeral.
In typical road trip movie fashion, a lot of insane, often head-shaking activity occurs, most of it played to heightened effect that held me to my seat. Tatum, Carolin, and co-writer/producer Brett Rodriguez really throw every card out, between near-reckless debauchery, broken laws, run-ins with holistic healers, a master of tantric massage (Emmy Raver-Lampman), and a straight nosed beat cop (Bill Burr). And moments of clarity Briggs’ dark side, Lulu’s own trauma, a voice of reason in fellow colleague Noah (a candid Ethan Suplee), and possible familial disjoint. All of these small pieces, as incongruent a mix as they seem, add to a robust and humble character study.
Briggs is all about the work, rather unfazed by his slight handicaps, determined to serve again, unable to see the bigger picture until he crosses paths with Lulu, forging a wayward friendship they couldn’t make time for on the job. The moment Tatum finishes blocking a scene, his mental fortitude is like a switch, going from sculptor to subject in an instant. Never losing himself, always testing, persistently taking ownership of the moment with his canine co-pilot alongside. For an actor whose work has bordered between sophomoric, satirical and sophisticated, he takes the brave step to once more gravitate over the latter.
Not since perhaps Magic Mike XXL have we seen him take his performance seriously enough to incite such a lofty elevation. It fits him, and it doesn’t sugarcoat the veteran experience. Knowing many friends who have served, it’s often sudden to observe the precarious situation of home life after end of service. Luck favors some, but not everyone. Briggs may be blindsided by the abstract concept of luck, living for the simple thrill. To see him slowly evolve from that mindset, that is the crown in Carolin and Tatum’s eyes, recognize the humility in life for the hope of rediscovering happiness through an alternative lens.
It is a welcome trait to possess here, the only idea that can slice through what would otherwise be an exercise in predictability. Try as he might, Tatum can only leave surface cracks in working to navigate past the standard “feel good dog movie” trope, where the ending can be guessed from a mile away. And here is no different. The direction these co-directors run parallels that convention, planning those risky swings with care and affection. Certainly for loved ones, fortifying Tatum and Lulu’s on screen buddy-buddy chemistry, while simultaneously embracing that open road freedom like a comforting hug. Captured with a wide frame as Newton Thomas Sigel (Cherry) frequently does, accompanied by another atmospheric Thomas Newman (1917) score, that freeing perception is key to drive past that dog movie formula.
Against those questionable choices, that wave of predictability, the oddball comedy, the precedent for occupant dramaturgy, Tatum recognizes the checkerboard and sees to push his rook past the guards, and let his dog star romp around without concern. Dog strikes that nerve of catharsis with restraint and composure, speaking to the conflict of physical and mental illness after time in high stress scenarios, with truth effortlessly outweighing fiction. Were it not Tatum taking the lead, there would not be as much balance between drama, humor and simplistic vibes of positivity, leaning towards the heavier side. Here is a film, one to involve a military dog as the co-star and play it both cool but truthful to the real world. Its resonance will reach everyone a little differently. For me, on its base instincts, I was stirred up with delight by the end. Perhaps not too dramatically to change the subgenre on first landing, but its case is well-stated. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Dog arrives in theaters February 18th; rated PG-13 for language, thematic elements, drug content and some suggestive material; 101 minutes.