There are times when watching “Dog” that one wonders if the directors realize who the star is and who has the title role.
Because there are shots in the film where Channing Tatum, the co-star and second banana, is in focus, and the Belgian Malanois named “Lulu” isn’t. As Tatum co-directed the film, that’s plainly on purpose. He knows that no one will be paying his muscular mug any mind if the gorgeous, expressive war dog Lulu is in the frame with him.
Whatever your “Turner and Hooch” expectations, “Dog” is an unadulterated delight. It’s an out-of-control dog/hapless dog handler comedy, sure. But any film with a cross-country trip involving a damaged vet and a traumatized war dog, a trip destined to end at the dog’s real handler’s funeral, is going to be a weeper.
PLATOON. Deploy HANDERCHIEFS! “SIR yes SIR!” Out-STANDING.
What this script, co-written by Tatum’s co-director Brett Rodriguez, manages is a subtle blend of genres and mashup of movies. It’s “Turner & Hooch” on “The Last Detail,” two wounded warriors stumbling and comically detouring their way to a grim, preordained reality.
Soldiers get wounds that never heal. Soldiers die. And when the Army Rangers have no more use for a combat dog…
The whole movie is set up in quick, sure strokes in an opening credits montage — pages of photos and letters from the dog’s “I Love You” book of combat duty, shots of the combat duty of Briggs Jackson (Tatum), now a hard-drinking, blackout-prone loner who “just wants back in the game” as a mercenary (“contractor”) or “diplomatic security” specialist.
A song sets the tone under those credits, the late John Prine’s “How Lucky Can One Guy Get” mournful duet with Kurt Vile.
Briggs Jackson fought his war and bears the physical scars and CTE from it. He’s reduced to making subs at a Montana service station and literally begging his former CO (Luke Forbes) for a recommendation for a high paying civilian gig. Capt. Jones knows the guy blacks out and is heavily medicated. No dice.
But one of their comrades in arms has died, in that “Rangers find a way to die” ethos. The “guest of honor” for that funeral is at Fort Lewis, in Washington. Deliver that guest, who is too traumatized to fly, to Nogales, Arizona. That guest is the late Sgt. Rodriguez’s war dog.
The medicated veteran with no affinity for animals is paired with an impossible-to-handle tracking, sniffing and attacking dog for one long drive, through the pot farms of Oregon to the posh hotels of San Francisco, sometimes sleeping in that former (the badges have been removed) Ford Bronco, sometimes cussing it because it’s a 50 year old truck that isn’t meant for 1700 mile drive.
One word of advice? “Don’t touch her ears.” Another? “Don’t be late.”
How much trouble could one vet, one dog and one worn-out truck get into over that distance?
The cute scenes here are a mix of no-brainers (dog needs a bath) and inspired touches. Let’s stop and see if musclebound Ranger Briggs can pick up a babe in a bar…in “Portlandia.” What “buds” might a dog who’s jumped out the truck stumble into amongst the tall trees of the Pacific Northwest?
The script is always upending expectations, sometimes in startling ways. “Thank you for your service” becomes a running gag, a former soldier cop who might take pity and let Briggs continue his sacred mission turns out to be a power-tripping bigot. One thrilling bit involves another former comrade (Ethan Suplee) who demonstrates Lulu’s superpower after the Bronco is broken into.
Sure, there’s a lot of talking to the dog, who seems to be listening if not necessarily comprehending the banter. Q’orianka Kilcher (“A New World”) was cast as Brigg’s ex, and is all but edited out of the picture. Maybe for the same reasons the co-director made sure he was the one in focus in those canine-two-shots.
But the trip is amusing enough, the doggy excesses funny and the climax, pre-ordained by their destination, will punch you right in the heart — not hard, just enough to deploy that hanky.
In these days when Hollywood shortcuts include using digital dogs in far too many movies to suit any thinking person’s taste, you have to hand it to Tatum for committing to this gig and putting in the work to make the real dog (three of them) the star, the story honest and grounded and the star heroic.
The combat-vet dog isn’t the only one deserving a “Thank you for your service,” this time.
Rating: PG-13 for language, thematic elements, drug content and some suggestive material
Cast: Channing Tatum, Ethan Suplee, Luke Forbes and Q’orianka Kilcher.
Credits: Directed by Reid Carolin and Channing Tatum, scripted by Reed Carolin and Brett Rodriguez.
Running time: 1:41