It’s a frustrating exercise for a critic to watch a film that should, by all accounts, be a solid cinematic experience, only to witness it become a missed opportunity.
“Dog” tells a simple story that should have been dripping in well-executed dramatic moments, and instead the movie made its lead human so unlikable that any catharsis that might have come from rehabilitating a traumatized war dog evaporates like the memory of this film hopefully want.
Channing Tatum plays Briggs, a veteran looking to get back into active duty while trying to hide a medical history that would clearly disqualify him due to everything from head trauma and migraines to some kind of undiagnosed mental health problems.
All he needs is for the right person to make the right phone call, and nobody seems to come through for him, until one of his superiors makes him a deal.
Briggs is entrusted with a Belgian Malinois named Lulu who has a suitcase of his own trauma. And nobody can seem to connect with her. Lulu’s former handler died, and Briggs now has to transport her to the funeral down the West Coast and into a small desert town for the handler’s family. Along the way, high jinks ensue.
This should have been a simple story of two hurting souls slowly building trust and learning to heal with each other. And very little of that takes place in the 90 minutes of “Dog.”
A TERRIBLE HANDLER
It becomes immediately apparent that teaming Lulu with Briggs was a huge mistake. She’s clearly a hurting animal that requires the utmost attention to her care, and Briggs spends 92% of this film being the biggest jerk imaginable.
With such an important mission, one might expect Briggs to drive straight to the funeral, but because he doesn’t want to arrive early and spend a few days bored in a motel, he makes a few detours. One of his first stops? A shooting range. He takes a dog with PTSD to a shooting range and leaves Lulu in the vehicle alone for hours so he can blow off steam.
Briggs’ inability to empty his handgun’s clip before crippling migraines kick in illustrate immediately his medical history should not clear him for any kind of active duty. And it’s clear “Dog” wants the audience to understand Briggs has no life outside of deployment, and it’s all he knows. But the movie doesn’t do any of the work necessary to convey that to viewers.
Next stop? Portland, Ore., where Briggs again tries to ditch Lulu in the back of his vehicle so he can find a woman to sleep with. And Lulu, clearly not wanting to be left alone, barks like mad until a passerby uses a rock to break Briggs’ rear window. Lulu immediately leaps from the vehicle and attacks her supposed savior with Briggs barely intervening in time to save the man.
And here’s where any sane human would think, “Gee, maybe I should stop screwing around and dedicate my attention to thisly psychologically wounded animal for the next few days. My career depends on it.”
But no. Briggs’ only takeaway is now he doesn’t get to have sex, and he’s furious with the dog.
A PROPER HANDLER
Somewhere between Portland and the California state line, Lulu slips out of her leash and forces Briggs to pull over. She then leaps from the vehicle and runs straight into a pot farm. It’s here a rural Oregonian confuses Briggs for some kind of spy and shoots him with a tranquilizer. When Briggs comes to and escapes his bindings, he follows the man into his house where Lulu is waiting with a woman giving her proper attention.
Briggs is astounded that Lulu trusts the woman enough to eat out of her hand. When he asks her how she got the dog to eat out of her hand, she tells Briggs she didn’t get Lulu to do anything. She just talked to Lulu and treated her like a hurt animal. But even this lesson doesn’t sink into Briggs’ head.
And by this point in “Dog,” viewers should be able to see the primary problem with this film. Tatum has some good acting credits to his name, and he certainly looks the part of a US Army Ranger. But for some reason, the dramatic performance necessary to convey a man struggling with his physical limitations and mental scarring due to war eluded him. Maybe he just had too many irons in the fire as lead actor, producer, and co-director. It’s clear this role probably would have been better handled by Mark Wahlberg or Jake Gyllenhaal.
Tatum plays a convincing human manifestation of toxic masculinity. And that’s certainly part of the formula needed for this lead role. But that’s pretty much his only mode in the film. It makes his character irredeemable in the long run.
MOST OFFENSIVE SCENE
The woman Briggs is stunned to see trusted by Lulu informs him she’s also a psychic (no, really). And she does a reading on Lulu. Her primary takeaway is Lulu wants to sleep on a comfy bed. This is where the most offensive scene in the movie plays out.
Rather than get a room at a Best Western and let Lulu have her own queen-size bed, Briggs decides to pretend to be a blind man and force Lulu into the role of his seeing-eye dog. This is the supposed hero of the story everyone is supposed to be rooting for, and he goes and pulls such an offensive stunt to get a room in a fancy hotel. He even uses the ruse to get free room service.
Naturally, the ruse fails when Lulu loses control and chases down a man wearing what appears to be some kind of Middle Eastern garb in the hotel lobby. Briggs is rightfully arrested, and rather than owning up to his actions, uses the funeral of Lulu’s handler as an excuse to get out of jail.
He only gets off because a prosecutor thinks charging a veteran with a hero service dog would be a losing case. And what does Briggs do at this turn of luck? Learn his lesson? Turn things around? nope He continues to disrespect a police officer who reveals himself as a former military policeman, implying the cop’s military service doesn’t amount to much compared to Briggs’ career.
Somewhere along the way, the movie pretends it has time to give Briggs a family he attempts to connect with once. His former significant other is given no lines, and Tatum spends maybe 15 seconds of screen time on this superfluous subplot that amounts to nothing. It seems like a rushed effort to give Tatum’s character a little more sympathy or depth. Neither is accomplished.
By the time Briggs finally makes it to the funeral, he seems to have made some progress with Lulu, who now trusts him. But the tragic mistake in “Dog” is the film mistakes Briggs getting along with Lulu for character growth. It’s a frustrating exercise.
To the credit of “Dog,” the film does have a few good scenes in the final 20 minutes, especially the funeral. And it’s in these last scenes where Tatum finally finds his chops and begins to play a character the audience can root for. It’s just a shame the new Tatum only shows up for the final few minutes.
“Dog” is a film of bad choices. As it stands, Tatum is outperformed by the dog who played Lulu. At least Lulu was well trained and gave a convincing show of being an animal under the weight of losing her handler and wielding emotional scars.
The film opens today in theaters.