Not since Abbott and Costello in Buck Privates in 1941 and Lewis and Martin in At War With the Army in 1950 has a film raised greater concern about who they’re letting into the military these days than does Dog. Although he certainly possesses the requisite physique, Channing Tatum’s Army Ranger Briggs most of the time seems like such a screw-up that you’d definitely want him on the other guy’s team. The power of this Dog lies in its half-canine/half-human buddy comedy, which is genial enough, even if its aim is scatter-shot and its comic tone decidedly hit-and-miss.
Since his appearances in Logan Lucky and Kingsman: The Golden Circle five years ago, Tatum hasn’t been seen in any significant mainstream theatrical films. He did, however, co-produce a 2017 HBO documentary, War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend, about special ops canines that led him and longtime production partner Reid Carolin into producing and co-directing the simply and, from their point of view, hopefully not prophetically titled project. The result is a mangy thing that underwhelms but nonetheless does have its moments.
Briggs’ mission is far from impossible; to the contrary, it couldn’t be simpler for anyone with a driver’s license: To deliver a fellow Army Ranger’s dog Lulu from Fort Lewis, in Washington State, to Arizona in time for the man’s funeral a couple of days hence. The challenge for the screenwriters (Carolin and longtime Tatum assistant Brett Rodriguez) was to come up with enough goofy gags, physical impediments and screw-ups along the way to fill out the 101-minute running time.
By definition, this is as road movie, with all the visual and circumstantial opportunities that implies. The medium-sized Belgian Malinois are smart and extremely loyal and in recent times have become a dog of choice for the military and police. But they’re also fierce, tenacious and, if provoked, quite dangerous, as Briggs discovers to his peril on more than one occasion.
The filmmakers take the useful old slogan “What can go wrong will go wrong” as far as they can, which also means that the muscle-bound Briggs has to be about as stupid as military regulations permit. Lulu is an orphan now and in no mood to accommodate or make nice with a soldier far less distinguished and capable than she is. Whether his passenger likes it or not, Briggs talks a mean streak to her, revealing a personality who is scattered, confused, maladroit and certainly not confidence-inspiring. He comes across as nothing short of a big-time loser.
Like a guy who’s obviously spent far too much time alone, Briggs prattles on and on, letting any dimwitted thought that comes into his head cascade right on out of his mouth. Now saddled with a companion, he talks to Lulu as well, often angrily and sometimes so much that she just wants to get away. Briggs and Lulu quickly fall into the routines of a thorny old couple, which is amusing and annoying in equal measure.
Silly comedy and mishaps define much of the action, much of which is punctuated by Briggs talking to himself and, due to her proximity, to Lulu. If Lulu were a person, all the complaint-ridden muttering would be cut short. But in these odd circumstances, Briggs has free rein to go on and on about life’s unfairness, his own distress and whatever else parks itself in the underserved nooks and crannies of his undernourished, free-range mind. It’s not the kind of thing one would have expected from the hunky and handsome Channing, but his litany of woes is so abundant that this, along with his seemingly irrepressible bungling, emerges as almost sweet, something you’d like to see him turn around. All the same, his nasty, violent, frustrated side is never submerged for too long.
Another filmmaker might have brought more modulation and depth to this material, perhaps something more along the lines of Hal Ashby and Robert Towne’s The Last Detail, which also involved a journey by servicemen occasioned by the death of another. For their part, Tatum and Carolin took a different tack and could have done worse, but could also have done much better.
Dog hits theaters Friday from MGM/United Artists Releasing.
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