The problem with starring alongside a dog in a feature film is that the canine will inevitably outshine the human actor. That’s what happens in Channing Tatum’s directorial debut, the aptly named “Dog.”
“Dog” is about a US Army Rangers veteran (played by Tatum) who is tasked with transporting Lulu, a heroic canine who served with him, for her late handler’s funeral in Arizona.
Lulu — a Belgian Malinois played by three dogs, Zuza, Britta and Lana — served in eight deployments over seven years and earned a Purple Heart. Tatum plays Jackson Briggs, who suffers from “a string of brain injuries” and is prevented from returning to active duty.
“Dog” has weed, a psychic transmission and “demon” dog antics. But can a movie find humor in two road-tripping war veterans — one human, one canine — who are suffering from deep trauma, medical issues and loss?
Possibly. But “Dog” doesn’t achieve it.
Is ‘Dog’ a comedy?
It’s a big lift to make light of a storyline that involves a US veteran unwillingly adjusting to civilian life.
We learn that Lulu’s late handler, Sgt. Riley Rodriguez, and Briggs were injured in an explosion while serving abroad. Though Rodriguez was cleared to return to duty before he died by driving himself into a tree, Briggs is stuck crafting sandwiches for rude teenagers in his fast-food job. Briggs, who suffers from seizures and migraines, insists that he’s received a clean bill of health, but his requests for a tour of duty are denied.
The only way he can obtain a recommendation to serve again is by taking Lulu on a 1,500-mile road trip from Washington state to southern Arizona, where she will appear at Rodriguez’s funeral before she is put down for her violent behavior at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
As they drive through the Pacific Northwest, the duo’s encounters with Oregon’s weed-growing, chakra-aligning residents are comedic low-hanging fruit. When Briggs and Lulu make it to San Francisco, Briggs attempts to score free luxury accommodations by impersonating a “blind veteran and hero dog.”
This scene, which is featured prominently in the movie’s trailer, is obviously intended to evoke laughter. But it doesn’t sit well with me.
Briggs unwittingly exposes his charade when he chases Lulu through the fancy hotel where the two were offered a free night’s stay in a suite. Lulu had gone after a Muslim man wearing a thobe. Briggs gets Lulu, who is muzzled, under control as everyone in the room observes the scene.
“Oh my god, I can see!” says Briggs, who is no longer wearing sunglasses or using a white cane at this point.
In the next scene, Briggs is detained in jail and being interrogated for his involvement in a possible hate crime. Ultimately, the victim — a doctor traveling from Boston — decides to not press charges, on the condition that Briggs seeks professional help.
Surely there could have been less offensive ways Lulu could have gotten Briggs into trouble with the law?
‘Dog’ celebrates a different kind of love
The power of the dog is at the forefront in “Dog.”
Lulu is able to track down a thief in Santa Monica, likely miles away from where Briggs’ car was broken into, and break herself out of a crate and comfort Briggs after he has a seizure at a motel.
She quietly delivers one of the most emotional performances of the scene during Rodriguez’s funeral as she lays her head on her former handler’s combat boots. Zuza, Britta and Lana deserve awards for their performances.
What it lacks in comedy, “Dog” makes up with heart. It celebrates a different kind of love as Briggs and Lulu learn how to trust each other despite their postwar trauma.
‘Dog’, 3 stars
Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★
Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★
Directors: Reid Carolin and Channing Tatum.
Cast: Channing Tatum, Luke Forbes, Jane Adams, Kevin Nash.
Grade: In theaters Feb 18.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kimirobin and Instagram @ReporterKiMi.
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