A buddy comedy about the mutually life-altering friendship that forms between Channing Tatum and a Belgian Malinois during a wild road trip from Montana to Arizona, “Dog” is the kind of movie that will divide audiences into two uneven camps: Those surprised to discover that it’s actually good, and those disappointed to learn that it’s not astoundingly great. The first group, all of them fools, walks into this thing expecting to see a goofy jock take his “steroidal puppy” screen persona to its logical conclusion. The second group, having been sanctified by the divine light of masterpieces like “She’s the Man” and “Magic Mike XXL,” readies themselves for another chance to see one of the most unpretentious movie stars of his generation leverage his meathead physique into a perfect vessel for exploring the softer side of masculinity.
“Dog” vindicates both crowds to varying degrees, as this zany and satisfying tear-jerker is possibly the most Channing Tatum thing that anyone has ever made (he even co-directed it alongside his producing partner Reid Carolin). Some aspects of the film reflect his limitations — the majority of them crystallize his charms. But even the movie’s wackiest and most juvenile digressions can’t disguise the fact that its bark is worse than its (very tender) bite, as the real power of this “Dog” is ultimately rooted in its star’s undying belief that a man is only as strong as the bond he shares with his best friend.
The bond that Briggs (Tatum) shares with his brothers-in-arms sure isn’t doing the trick anymore. A former Army Ranger forced to retire from active duty after sustaining a series of brain injuries (“The Army has no place for liabilities,” his ex-Captain says), Briggs is on his own at the start of this movie. Carolin’s script can be frustratingly broad when it comes to its empty shell of a hero, but the empty bottles scattered across the floor of his bedroom paint a clear enough picture, and it seems like he isn’t the only one who hasn’t been getting the support he needs from his fellow Rangers or the Army at large; his war buddy Rodriguez has just crashed his car into a tree at 120mph, and you wonder how many of the uniformed men who gather at his memorial had actually bothered to call the guy when he was in crisis. Then again, it’s unlikely that Rodriguez ever asked for help: He was a soldier, and soldiers are taught to wear a brave face no matter how much they’re hurting inside.
But Briggs doesn’t give a damn that the Army doesn’t want him anymore, or that going back on active duty might be the single worst thing he could do to quiet the ringing in his ears. He needs a family, and the only way he’s going to be allowed back in the circle is if he agrees to drive Rodriguez’s traumatized service dog — a former Army Ranger, herself — down to his funeral service in Arizona before leaving her at the military base where she’s due to be euthanized.
Will Briggs decide to save Lulu’s life? Will Lulu be able to save his in return? Will there be an absolutely demented scene that, impossible as it sounds, somehow manages to bridge the gap between “Scent of a Woman” and Samuel Fuller’s “White Dog”? The answer to all of those questions is obvious, but this sweet and semi-gentle movie takes great pleasure in the process of asking them in wildly ridiculous ways. While “Dog” is far more genial than laugh-out-loud funny — Carolin and Tatum maintain the loose comic tone of an old war story as they alternate between slapstick humor and sudden dashes of raw tension — it’s also very much a road trip movie at heart, and one that uses the genre as permission to put its characters in all sorts of wacky situations.
“Dog” makes time for all of the basic shtick you’d expect in a comedy about a large adult man chauffeuring his dead friend’s high-maintenance pet for more than 1,500 miles, and muttering to himself turns out to be one of Tatum’s many hidden talents. Still, the dynamic between Briggs and the four-legged passenger he cages up in the backseat of his 1984 Bronco is loaded from the start.
For starters, they served together. The last time Briggs saw Lulu — who’s played by very good girls Britta, Lana, and Zuza — she was mauling people half to death in one of the Middle Eastern countries that Briggs is so desperate to see again (he doesn’t seem to care which country it will be, or why American troops might be sent there). He knows to be a little scared of her, even if he’s forgotten how much she hates being touched behind the ears, but it will take him some time to recognize the pain behind Lulu’s eyes, or to see himself in the muzzled frown of a dog being left to die now that she’s no longer fit for combat. In fact, the first pit stop Briggs makes on the trip is at a firing range, where he pops off a few practice rounds without paying any mind to the fact that a single gunshot might be enough to trigger Lulu’s PTSD.
Briggs’ injuries are less defined — a symptom of his denial that positions the movie around him to let the Army off the hook — but if “Dog” shares its protagonist’s ugly indifference towards the specifics of America’s wars, it isn’t shy about the soul-poisoning cost of fighting in them. While Carolin and Tatum stop short of condemning the Army outright, they come a hell of a lot closer to it than you’d expect from a movie that opens with the strong whiff of military propaganda. It’s clear that Briggs and Lulu are both sick in their own ways, and it’s telling that even the silliest of the detours along their road trip find them running into healers of one kind or another.
A stop in Portland — a city whose crunchiness the film exaggerates to such a ridiculous degree that Fox News viewers will probably take it at face value — climaxes with Lulu cock-blocking Briggs’ very special night with a pair of sexy tantric gurus. A pit stop on the way to San Francisco leads to an ambush that threatens to send the whole movie in a much darker direction, but a sequence that starts with some genuine suspense is eventually defused in the most delightful possible way (no spoilers, but Jane Adams and WWE legend/“Magic Mike XXL” icon Kevin Nash will be tough to beat as the year’s best movie couple). Later, when Briggs poses as a blind veteran in order to snag a free room at a fancy hotel, the film’s most broadly comedic episode crashes to a halt with its most uncomfortably sobering moment, as Lulu bites a doctor in a scene that confronts a fuller range of the damage that she and Briggs have brought home with them.
It’s hard to describe these seriocomic setpieces without robbing them of their “what the hell is happening right now?” fun, but let’s just say that a movie as off the leash as “Dog” would be a total disaster if not for Tatum’s ability to maintain its tail-wagging tone. He may not push himself very hard in this role (even by the end, Briggs only amounts to a rough idea of a person), but it’s always fun to see an actor who so fully understands how to wield his own appeal.
At heart, this is a film that just wants some good pats, and it’s willing to do whatever it takes to get them. That eagerness creates an occasional clash between the yucks and the tears — as you might expect from something that marries the canine hijinks of “Turner & Hooch” with the hilarity of euthanasia, PTSD, and combat veteran suicide — and it leaves Carolin and Tatum a bit off-balance when the movie finally makes its feeble bid to flesh out Briggs’ backstory. The nice stuff is a little tense, the tense stuff is a little nice, and the waterworks at the end amount to more of a leaky faucet than a busted reservoir because of the film’s unwillingness to lean too hard in any particular direction. And yet, “Dog” builds to a surprising degree of clarity on at least one point, even if it’s argued with a non-partisan softness: These two former Army Rangers are only able to Be All They Can Be because of what they become to each other.
MGM will release “Dog” in theaters on Friday, February 18.