This poster for Dog is one of those posters so perfect that I almost don’t want the movie to exist. There’s no way an actual film could be as good as the one this poster already conjured in my head.
Yet Dog does exist, marking the directorial debut of star Channing Tatum (long known affectionately as “C-Tates” around these parts), who co-directs and co-writes alongside his long-time producing partner Reid Carolin. They’re adapting from a story by Carolin and Tatum’s former assistant, Brett Rodriguez, who is also an ex-soldier. The three had previously collaborated on a documentary for HBO called War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend, focusing specifically on Army Rangers and their dogs. Thus what we have in Dog is, essentially, Turner And Hooch, only Turner is a troop. And so is Hooch.
Tatum plays Jackson Briggs, an Army Ranger discharged with a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) whose dream job in diplomatic security requires a recommendation from his commanding officer. But the CO (Luke Forbes) only agrees to do give it on one condition: that Briggs transport a “disturbed” Ranger dog named Lulu back to Nogales, AZ for the funeral of her former handler, a Ranger named Riley Rodriguez. Translation? ROAD TRIP MOVIE!
As a dog man, an avid C-Tates booster, and someone who has raised and loved multiple German Shepherds in my life (close cousins to the Belgian Malinois featured in the film) my sense that I was probably the ideal audience for this film was confirmed when I cried during the opening credits. Dog‘s intro sequence is a montage taken from Lulu’s “I Love Me Book,” a scrapbook of military paperwork and mementos, which in Lulu’s case includes drawings and poems written by her dead owner, pictures and videos of Lulu in action — Lulu passing soldier tests, Lulu nuzzling her soldier brothers, Lulu getting treated for war wounds, etc… Christ, it’s hard to even write about, a series of HERO DOG SAVES ORPHANAGE headlines intercut with a sweet doggie limping around in a cast. We are all susceptible to certain forms of emotional manipulation, and sad doggies could sell me the Brooklyn Bridge.
Yet for a concept that feels so self-propelling, probably the biggest surprise of Dog is that it’s not nearly as Disney as you might expect. I anticipated something akin to A Dolphin’s Tale, another movie about a wounded animal inspiring wounded veterans, featuring Marine Biologist Harry Connick Jr. (I take every opportunity I can to type the words “Marine Biologist Harry Connick Jr.,” which is my personal “cellar door“). Tatum and Carolin, by contrast, seem far more concerned with doing right by their military consultants, retaining the particular camaraderie shared by military men than they do with making a family-friendly tear-jerker. So when Briggs and his military pals discuss their fallen comrade, they do so not in the weepy, reverent tones years of war propaganda have conditioned us to expect, but in the understated, gallows humor patois of soldier bros. “Riley was as solid as they come,” Briggs tells a buddy.
“Yeah, tell that to the tree he hit doing 120,” the buddy responds, a verbal sack tap for getting too mushy.
Likewise, Dog studiously resists making Briggs too “cuddly,” clearly determined to remain authentic to what it believes a Ranger veteran with a TBI might actually be like. True, Tom Hanks’s character in Turner and Hooch similarly began the movie as a squared away cop who didn’t particularly like dogs, thus leaving room for his transition into hopelessly doting dog dad (and room to fulfill the “dad who loudly resisted getting a dog” stereotype). But Tatum seems determined never to let us forget that Briggs is a War Man who has Seen Some Shit; a guy who casually reminisces with Lulu about “kickin’ in doors and gettin’ our murder on.” I don’t remember Marine Biologist Harry Connick Jr. ever describing himself as a murderer.
Hanks and C-Tates both have a natural lovableness that frequently transcends whatever was on the page. Yet there’s a natural disdain, among the characters Dog depicts, for civilian society — blissfully ignorant of the details of their dirty work that the soldiers have had to do. It’s a natural disconnect, but one that always risks becoming a political football. And so a constant tension exists in Dog, between wanting to appeal to the military guys who inspired and helped make it, and maybe even go full Black Rifle Coffee Company/operator culture propaganda op; and its natural shape as a heartwarming buddy-dog movie.
Which is to say that Dog frequently risks “getting political,” like when Briggs and Lulu pass through Portland, here populated by women who are all varying degrees of “liberal loonies,” (Dog doesn’t use the phrase but it’s heavily implied), or when Lulu freaks out at a San Francisco hotel and nearly attacks a Muslim man. “I’m sorry, she’s been trained to go after people like you,” Briggs attempts to explain.
That’s pretty dark! I admit I cringed, and that part of me just wanted to see a nice movie about a whole town coming together to nurse a disturbed doggy back to health. But maybe a society that spends 20 years doing war doesn’t deserve sanitized soldier dog movies. Dog won’t give it to us, which is admirable. Though neither is it some Peter Berg tac ops circle jerk, even though sometimes it almost is.
Dog attempts and mostly does a solid job walking a perilous line, being honest about and sympathetic to the concerns and inside jokes of veterans without licking boots or justifying endless war. Ethan Suplee shows up late in the film as a fellow veteran and dog whisperer, and it’s almost disturbing the degree to which a former pussy posse member can not only believably play an ex-soldier but function as the film’s moral center. Suplee’s character urges Briggs to find a higher power, AA talk here applied to PTSD. Part of me wishes it had been Lulu delivering the life lessons (this is a dog movie after all), but Suplee was oddly solid.
Could Dog have been more about the actual dog? Sure, but no movie was ever going to top the poster. And in the end, it’s hard not to appreciate a tight 90 about C-Tates and a dog learning to love again.