Simple title: “Dog.”
Simple plot: road trip.
Simply put, the combination makes for a well-crafted movie.
That’s largely thanks to Channing Tatum. He’s the star, playing an Army Ranger named Jackson Briggs who’s stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He’s also the co-director, sharing that duty with his business partner Reid Carolin, who also wrote the screenplay.
In the central role, Tatum shares the screen with the title character, a highly trained Belgian Malinois named Lulu (three dogs play the canine). The dog is a war hero who served in the Middle East with her Ranger handler Riley Rodriguez (and Briggs’ comrade in arms), who died in the line of duty. Briggs accepts an assignment to take Lulu from Washington state to Rodriguez’s home in Arizona for the fallen warrior’s funeral. He does so reluctantly.
Lulu has been traumatized by her experiences on the front lines and is skittish and snappish. And Briggs is not in very good shape himself. Frequently wounded, he’s recovering from a traumatic brain injury that has rendered him unfit for active duty. But he’s making progress, and his commanding officer tells him that if he delivers Lulu to Arizona, he’ll pull strings to have Briggs returned to his unit, good to go. So off they go in Briggs’ ’84 Ford Bronco, a wary twosome, neither of whom really wants to be around the other.
War dog movies are, of course, nothing new. Recently, there has been “Megan Leavey” released in 2017. In fact, “Dog” itself was inspired by “War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend,” a documentary from the same year produced by Tatum and Carolin. The difference between “Dog” and those other pictures is that it’s a comedy. Though one with teeth, to be sure.
It treads a delicate line between physical comedy and more serious concerns. There are plenty of scenes of Lulu tearing the Bronco’s seats to pieces and running away with Briggs in hot and bothered pursuit.
In the mix, too, are scenes acknowledging the price both characters have paid for their heroism: the visible wounds and the mental torments of PTSD. Civilians, Briggs remarks to Lulu, “don’t know the things you’ve done to be a hero.” He says it sardonically in response to the easy and automatic “thank you for your service” comments they hear from sympathetic but clueless non-veterans.
On their 1,500-mile journey, they encounter a pet psychic who urges Briggs to let Lulu sleep in a soft bed, for therapeutic purposes. That leads to an extended scene where Briggs dons dark glasses and picks up a white cane to feign blindness and get them a room in a luxury hotel for free. The beds sure are soft and the suite’s bathtub is much appreciated, by both. Thus he makes “thank you for your service” pay off big time. That is until Lulu is triggered by the sight of a hotel guest in Islamic garb and attacks the man. Briggs winds up in jail facing a hate-crime charge.
Along the way, homelessness is touched upon as Briggs retrieves stolen items from a thief in a homeless encampment. In the process, he realizes he could have ended up in such a place had things turned out differently for him. A companion scene finds him looking wistfully through the window of a veteran dog handler, seeing his friend happily at home with wife and kids. That, too, is a possible path for him.
Through it all, Tatum balances exasperation, an easygoing lightheartedness and a deep empathy for his character’s and Lulu’s inner turmoil. His command of the role and his confident direction of the picture make “Dog” a very engaging experience.