If the devil were to arrive on Earth in human form, he wouldn’t appear as an infant born to an Upper West Side mom with a pixie cut, or even as a scheming, greedy, amoral presidential candidate. Those guises are just too obvious. He would show up as someone like Channing Tatum, an actor loved by almost everyone who has a brain and a heart, a performer who can make us believe in any script, whether it’s far-fetched, corny, or just plain dumb. Luckily, there’s no way Tatum is working for the dark side—he’s too radiant and generous a spirit for that—but his persuasiveness is devilishly effective even in movies whose charms you may try valiantly to resist. And he will make you believe in Dog.
Dog, which was co-directed by Tatum and Reid Carolin (writer of the enormously awesome Magic Mike movies), is one of those pictures that you think you have pinned down even before you see it—and in some ways, you probably do. Tatum plays Briggs, an Army Ranger who feels completely lost when not on duty. He’s stuck making sandwiches somewhere in Montana and he’s dead broke, desperate to be redeployed. But he has suffered a serious brain injury, and the Army wants nothing to do with him. He begs the higher-ups to send him out on the next rotation; they keep refusing. But finally, to shut him up if nothing else, they give him an assignment. One of his old Ranger buddies, formerly the handler of a K9 soldier—a Belgian malinois named Lulu—has died, a suicide. The soldier’s distraught parents want Lulu at his funeral in Arizona. Can Briggs get her there?
Lulu suffers from PTSD; her anxiety manifests itself in aggression, making her unadoptable and, presumably, unlovable. She’s one of the Army’s lost causes, a casualty who has become a burden to them. Briggs accepts the mission, partly because he needs something to do, but mostly to get back in the Amy’s good graces.
Man rescues dog as dog rescues man. How many times have we seen this story? But we’ve never seen Tatum play it. Dog—which was written by Carolin and Brett Rodriguez—is largely a comedy, and only partly a tearjerker. But it earns those tears. Lulu isn’t an easy dog to like, especially at first. She’s so unpredictable that she’s doomed to wear a Bane-style leather muzzle most of the time. She goes ballistic if her ears are touched even lightly. It’s dangerous to take her out in public, and she feels a constant need to run—even though she’s long been off-duty, she’s still susceptible to every combat trigger. And the opening credits, as well as broad hints dropped here and there throughout the film, let us know that she’s been trained to attack and kill. That’s the job humans have given her and groomed her for. In a scene that doesn’t end as badly as you fear, she escapes Briggs’s grip in the lobby of a fancy hotel and attacks a doctor, a Muslim, because he’s wearing a thobe.
That’s a horrible reminder of Lulu’s past life, but a key truth entwined in it is that dogs don’t go to war of their own volition. Dog isn’t openly political, but it’s definitely not overtly liberal. Men and women join the military for all sorts of reasons, and not necessarily because they like the idea of war. We don’t know what Briggs’s reasons were, but the point is that he’s lost without the community and sense of purpose he found in the Army. If you want soldiers to be portrayed as people rather than symbols—and we should always want that—Tatum is your guy.
We watch as the inevitable happens: Briggs and Lulu learn to trust each other—it’s the thing both of them need. But Lulu doesn’t make it easy. Early on in the duo’s road trip, she busts out of her crate, destroying the interior of Briggs’s truck. When he meets two tantric-sex specialists eager to get it on with him, Lulu’s loud barking—she’s locked in the truck outside—becomes the interruptus of any potential coitus. In one of the movie’s most outlandish detours, Briggs is taken hostage by a paranoid farmer somewhere in Oregon—but that’s also how he discovers that Lulu, when treated with kindness, has a softer side. (The wonderful actress Jane Adams plays the hippie-dippy, kimono-clad New Ager who brings that out in this troubled dog, channeling her thoughts and informing Briggs that what Lulu really wants, and has never had, is to “sleep on a really nice bed.”)
Lulu—who is played by three dogs, because she’s a girl of many moods—is obviously a metaphor for Briggs’s broken self. Part of his problem is that he needs to stop pitying himself, but the greater world doesn’t make that easy. When he goes to a Portland bar hoping—politely—to get laid, the women he meets condescend to him when they find out he’s a veteran. “At what point did you realize you were just a pawn for big oil?” one asks him. It’s convenient to be anti-war when you’ve never been the person sent to fight one.
If you, like me, watch any movie involving dogs with your stomach muscles clenched as tight as a rawhide knot, you should know that there are several tense moments in Dog, times when you’re certain something bad is going to happen. But true disaster is always averted, and (spoiler alert!) the ending is a happy one. Not everything in Dog works—you can sometimes see its directors scrambling to find the right tone, and not quite succeeding. And the movie is not wholly free of hokum. But watching Tatum is pure pleasure. He’s an actor filled with easy, laid-back grace. His comic timing has a boomerang zing—sometimes he looks a little surprised when he lands a punchline, and it’s glorious. (“Oh my God, I can see!” he proclaims, the capper to what some might see as the movie’s most tasteless gag, though Tatum makes it hilarious.) As Briggs and the unruly Lulu rehabilitate each other, they find a new sense of purpose outside of their old roles. You can teach an old dog new tricks, and that goes for people, too.
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