Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 1 hour and 41 minutes
Directed by: Reid Carolin and Channing Tatum
Starring: Channing Tatum, Q’orianka Kilcher, Jane Adams, Kevin Nash, Ethan Suplee, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Bill Burr
Directors Reid Carolin and Channing Tatum’s DOG isn’t your average tale about man and his best friend. There’s a surprising amount of bold risks this poignant dramedy takes connecting its two-legged and four-legged protagonists’ arcs. Combining MAGIC MIKE XXL’s wacky road trip misadventures with the heartfelt pathos of a family friendly drama about a decorated K-9 and an Army veteran bonding over shared trauma, its attempt to fit these two styles together is wobbly, yet extremely endearing nonetheless.
Army veteran Jackson Briggs (Tatum) is anxious to be put back on active duty. Once he took orders as part of an elite squad of Army Rangers, but now he takes orders from rude customers as a sandwich artist. He lives paycheck to paycheck in Oregon, far from his ex-wife (Q’orianka Kilcher) and 3-year-old daughter in Los Angeles. And because of head trauma sustained while on duty, he’s at risk for seizures and struggles with migraines, PTSD and denial over the severity of his condition. His captain is reticent to send him anywhere, but an opportunity arises to test Jackson’s mettle.
Squadmate Riley Rodriguez (Eric Urbiztondo) has recently died and his gold star family has requested that his heroic K-9 partner Lulu (played by dogtresses Zuza, Britta and Lana) be at the funeral in Arizona. Jackson’s got one week to get the highly-trained Belgian Malinois across a few states to the event, and then he can be in a new rotation. He soon realizes it’s not going to be an easy mission. Lula is no longer the sweet, skilled dog he once served with. She’s been dealt her own battles with injury – both physical and mental – and is highly sensitive, anxious and tormented, having trouble acclimating to civilian life. He’s given her personal journal (one her deceased handler wrote), a set of rules to follow (all of which we know Jackson’s gonna break) and orders to take her to a military center after the funeral where she’s to be remanded to their care (a death sentence Jackson doesn’t agree with).
Those who may not have seen the Valentine’s Day ad, where they graciously reveal that the dog lives, might have to contend with the unnecessary tension of that story aspect looming when viewing. Part of Jackson’s journey, going from selfish to selfless, deals with him trying to give Lulu the mercy and compassion she – and he, for that matter – haven’t received since returning home. This is a main emotional through-line intertwining their struggles and obstacles, and those of other war vets, giving voice to the systematic problem that our country doesn’t do enough for those who’ve bravely fought for our freedom.
Carolin, who also wrote the screenplay, and Tatum occasionally get a little heavy-handed with their messaging, but are ultimately able to re-focus. The scene under the boardwalk involving an unhoused person (Ronnie Gene Blevins) who’s stolen Jackson’s medication and clothes is one of the few times they lose balance, but they win the audience back one scene later where Jackson exudes greater empathy. The cast of colorful characters Jackson and Lulu encounter while out on the road also might take audiences aback, but are completely in line with the filmmakers’ previous wild works. They span from two tantric healers, a pacifist pot farmer (Kevin Nash) and his psychic wife (Jane Adams), and a racist cop (Bill Burr).
Tatum and the dogs playing Lulu share a great rapport, even when their characters aren’t getting along. Though the shenanigans they find themselves in walk a fine line, for character development purposes, we still root for Jackson’s maturation. It can be a little confounding when Jackson knowingly puts Lulu in questionable or harmful situations after being warned about her triggers, and despite being a responsible soldier who knows how to follow orders. It’s forgivable, though, since he too has issues he’s working through.
DOG earns its highest marks with its aesthetics. Its technical composition is masterfully constructed. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography gives the picture a soul, connecting to thematic and narrative drive. Sequences where the dynamic duo are out on the road glimmer and sparkle, effused with warmth and vulnerability. Thomas Newman’s score wonderfully augments emotions without being overly manipulative or pushy, subtly guiding us along on the ride.
Overall, this feature has its heart in the right place, wearing it on its sleeve like a badge of honor.
Grade: 3.5 out of 5
DOG opens in theaters on February 18.