Something would have had to go very, very wrong for “Dog” not to work on a basic level. Pairing Channing Tatum, one of our most likable leading men, with a dog in a road trip two-hander is probably the closet you can get to a guaranteed win in Hollywood.
This is also a project that was born out of utter sincerity in the wreckage of a few years wasted on a squashed superhero movie. Tatum and his longtime producing partner Reid Carolin put their heads together to make something small, something meaningful, something they could do by themselves and something that they would want to see in a movie theater. And “Dog” was born, with both Tatum and Carolin making their directorial debuts.
In addition to directing, Tatum plays former US Army Ranger Jackson Briggs, who is a lost soul when not in deployment. His day job making sandwiches at a Subway-type fast casual restaurant isn’t exactly giving him life. And all he wants is to get back overseas. There, he feels, he has a purpose. But though he has the motivation, he needs a recommendation, too, and his superior is not budging on that.
Then he gets an assignment: Take Lulu, a Belgian Malinois who Briggs served with, from Washington to Arizona for her handler’s funeral. If he can do this, maybe he’ll get the recommendation and be back in the field. Lulu, who is played by three different dogs, is not doing well, though. She can’t handle flying and she’s prone to attacking people, so they have to drive the 1,600 miles to make the service.
The start is a little rough and meandering. Briggs sees Lulu as just a means to an end and basically a nuisance that he has to deal with for a few days. On their first stop, he leaves her trapped in his truck while he goes prowling for women in Portland — a fruitless endeavor that seems to be played for comedy, but ends up just feeling sad. The film has several over-the-top gags, including one with a sadistic cannabis farmer and another bit where Briggs impersonates a blind man to get a fancy hotel room. All may theoretically work on their own, but they also don’t quite mesh with the overall tone.
It’s an interesting conundrum, too, because Tatum and Reid weren’t wrong to want to inject some humor and levity into a pretty heavy subject. But perhaps the issue is that Briggs is not your average Tatum character. He is not Magic Mike or Jimmy Logan, who are both fundamentally good guys in himbo packaging: He’s selfish, he’s got an ego and a temper and a young child (with an estranged partner played by Q’orianka Kilcher) who doesn’t even recognize him when he comes to the door bearing a gas station stuffed unicorn. Briggs is someone who doesn’t even really know how broken he is.
The disjointedness starts to mesh after an illuminating stop in Los Angeles (where there is still a strange showdown in a homeless encampment near the boardwalk) and the film gets back to its roots, which is Briggs and Lulu, without distractions. Together they have some genuinely moving breakthroughs and Tatum is allowed to flex his dramatic muscles more than usual.
Ultimately it does work, but “Dog” is a movie that is trying to do quite a bit, and perhaps bites off a little more than it can reasonably handle in 90 minutes.
“Dog,” a United Artists Releasing release in theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for language, thematic elements, drug content and some suggestive material.” Running time: 90 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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