Dog has two protagonists, one human and the other canine, and both were transformed by their time in the Army into shells of their previous selves, battle-scarred and jittery with PTSD, then discarded when they were no longer able to do the job for which they’d been trained. But the movie, which stars Channing Tatum and some very expressive Belgian Malinoises, never really gets around to holding the institution responsible for any of this. The military simply exists in Dog, an impassive fact, impervious to questions about its purpose or expectations that it do anything other than make more war. War is just another American product, like coal or corn, more essential for the industry it supports than as any kind of means to an end. To the degree that Briggs (Tatum), a former Ranger, talks about what he did, it’s all killing bad guys and saving lives. We know he served somewhere in the Middle East because Lulu, the dog he’s escorting to the funeral of the soldier who was her handler, commits a minor hate crime against a man wearing a thawb in the lobby of a San Francisco hotel. When Briggs comes to her defense by insisting she was just doing what she was taught to do, it says more about their time working together than anything he personally shares.
Maybe it’s too much to expect that Tatum’s directorial debut (he shares the credit with Magic Mike’s Reid Carolin, who wrote the script) would pair its empathy for soldiers with any kind of reckoning when it comes to what those soldiers were sent out into the world to do. Tatum the actor and filmmaker may be savvier than the characters he tends to play, but that savviness extends to his own image, and Dog, which features his first leading role since 2017’s Logan Lucky, is a star vehicle first, a showcase for the red-blooded, blue-collar solidity Tatum is so good at exuding on screen. It essentially mounts a calculated feature-length case for Tatum as a bipartisan celeb, dabbling at culture divides (Briggs struggles to get laid in progressive Portland) before dismissing them (Briggs is not racist, though his dog might be). But in its efforts not to saddle Briggs with any of his country’s inconvenient baggage, the movie creates a bizarre vacuum around his experiences in battle. The brain damage that led to his discharge may as well have occurred spontaneously. The trauma that wakes him up in the night and leads him to self-medicate with booze remains disconnected from any actions taken by or done to him.
Briggs is a soldier without a war, or rather, he’s a soldier for whom any war will do. He only agrees to take Lulu, who became erratic and aggressive after sustaining injuries in the field, from Washington down to Nogales, Arizona, for her handler’s funeral in exchange for a recommendation from his former commander that would allow him to sign on to a rotation in Pakistan as a private contractor. Lulu, who’s been deemed no longer fit for duty, is slated to be put down afterward, though if you believe that’s actually going to happen, you’ve never seen a movie before. The parallels between the wounded vets aren’t subtle, though Briggs refuses to acknowledge them for most of the running time. Dog pokes fun at the phrase “toxic masculinity” early on, but it soon becomes clear that toxic masculinity, and its bearing on self-proclaimed warrior culture, is what the movie is trying to grapple with. Briggs is in denial about the damage he’s taken, his emotional scars, and the fact that he’s essentially hoping to die rather than try to figure out civilian life and patch up his relationship with his estranged ex (The New World’s Q’orianka Kilcher, who barely gets a line) and their daughter. He can’t bring himself to even acknowledge that the funeral he and Lulu are headed to is probably the result of a suicide, not an accident.
Dog isn’t a dumb movie; it just has a frustrating habit of playing dumb with all its intense, self-defeating caution when it comes to criticism of the military. But it fully understands the charm of its star, who’s repeatedly positioned across the hood of his vehicle at dusk, Lulu at his side, like an ad equally effective for beer, trucks, or West Coast tourism. The best scenes are the ones with just the two of them thanks to Tatum’s easygoing willingness to be shown up by his canine co-stars — Lulu’s played by a trio of dog performers talented enough to make their moments of distress genuinely difficult to watch — and to interact with them as if they were lobbing banter back and forth. By the time they stop by Los Angeles to pay a visit to an unrecognizably ripped Ethan Suplee, the tears are already gathering. Dog feels like it should have been bigger and braver, but by the end, it also feels as if it could have been improved by being much smaller, closing in until it was just a guy and a dog and some of the country’s most beautiful scenery. What else do you really need?
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