Dog thankfully avoids propagandist war dog tropes and instead builds something sweet and poignant from its mismatched buddy comedy conceit.
Having vanished at the peak of his powers (excluding a string of voice roles/cameos), Channing Tatum has relaunched impressively, sliding back into the game with a new, high-profile relationship and a successful media blitz, not to mention promises of a Magic Mike reprisal sooner than later. Yet as much as this has all been a win for the Tatum brand, this whirlwind press push also obscures the project meant to promote: the modest road buddy comedy Dog. This also happens to be the movie star’s directorial debut (sharing the credit with Magic Mike co-screenwriter and producing partner Reid Carolin, who in turn wrote the screenplay with Brett Rodriguez, Tatum’s longtime assistant) and an obvious passion project, one that’s amusingly out of step with the current-day Hollywood sensibility exemplified by its own promotional rollout. And indeed, this is in part the charm of Dog, a seemingly demographic-less film that threads between family film, studio comedy, and PTSD drama unselfconsciously, driven by that Tatum-type charisma. Although, this might not be an entirely fair assessment, as Dog seems to be of a piece with a recent Hollywood interest in war dogs, following the likes of Kate Mara vehicle Meagan Leavey and the Boaz Yakin-directed Max (or, who could forget, the animated war romp Sgt. Stubby: An Unlikely Hero). One could imagine some sinister, propagandistic reasons for this trend, but Dog is, at least, good-natured and sincere (Tatum and Carolin previously produced a documentary on the subject).
Fashioned in the spirit of Hal Ashby’s melancholy road film The Last Detail, Dog pairs Tatum off with Lulu, a Belgian Malinois he once fought alongside as an army ranger. Tasked with driving the severely traumatized dog down the Pacific Coast Highway to her handler’s funeral and then, afterwards, to be put down at a military facility. This morbid backdrop colors the proceedings so that the otherwise goofy Turner and Hoochian antics and broader tangents (a stop off in Portland, OR allows for some easy post-Portlandia play) have an edge to them, silly bits like Tatum playing blind to get a free hotel room bear the potential of taking a hard right turn into White Dog territory without much forewarning. Easygoing in one moment, then terribly distressing in another, Carolin and Rodriguez’s script is careful in the way it balances this interplay, and Tatum, whose star persona already embodies this range, handles it deftly, quickly tossing off bleak admissions with his usual casual candor, never missing a beat. Tatum and co. stack the supporting cast with a well-curated assortment of character actors (Jane Adams, Kevin Nash, Ethan Suplee), all gifted prime scenes except for Q’orianka Kilcher, wasted in two brief wordless scenes despite high billing. Regardless of lingering issues such as those, the charms of Dog are hard to resist, a film that’s unafraid to go broad and finds specific poignancy in its primal premise — a man wrestling with an animal embodiment of his repressed traumas — ultimately creating something affectingly sweet and gentle from it.