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'Dog' has heart

Dog asks if a service animal can save a wayward Army Ranger? Photo credit: MGM

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From the ridiculously simple title to the elevator-pitch premise of Channing Tatum as a broken-down former Army Ranger who has to deliver a troublemaking retired military dog to the memorial service for the dog's human partner, we know exactly where Dog is going to take us; it's as predictable as the route we take every day when we walk our pups. Yet even as we can count the beats between the Powerful Dramatic Moments and the Slapstick Comedic Hijinks, even as we watch Tatum sharing most of his scenes and dialogue with a co-star who can't exactly talk back, we're enjoying this well-crafted, earnest and thoroughly mainstream effort.

Sure, give us the obligatory scene in which Tatum's Briggs pretends to be a blind wounded veteran so he and Lulu the dog can stay in a luxury hotel for free, and do you think there's going to be a moment when Lulu gets loose and creates havoc? Why, yes, we'll take a heaping helping of sentimentality, as Briggs reads from his fallen colleague's scrapbook, which is filled with writing about how Lulu is more than a dog: She's a fellow soldier and his best friend. And let's sprinkle in those scenes in which Briggs has long "conversations" with Lulu, who somehow seems to understand most of what he's saying.

What makes this all palatable is the lack of cynicism, the authentic heart, the, um, DOGGED determination of this movie. Tatum is leaning into his Lovable Big Lug persona, and the three Belgian Malinois portraying Lulu - their real names are Lana, Britta and Zuza - are amazingly talented, whether they're playing anxious, frightened, tense, potentially violent, comforting or mourning.

Channing makes his co-directing debut (alongside Reid Carolin) in this fictional story that was inspired in part by the actor's experiences with his beloved late pit bull-Catahoula mix, named ... Lulu. In the classic buddy road-trip movie formula of Rain Man, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Midnight Run, et al., you gotta get your two main characters taking a trip together and overcoming all sorts of personality conflicts, breakdowns in the system, unexpected challenges and setbacks, etc., as they try to make it from Point A to Point B. That one of the buddies in this particular buddy film is a large and uncooperative military dog is but a wrinkle to the formula.

In fact, Briggs and Lulu are both former Army Rangers who made great sacrifices for their country but have rotated out and are having enormous difficulties adjusting to life stateside. Briggs is estranged from his 3-year-old daughter, Sam, and Sam's mother; he can barely keep various minimum-wage jobs; he's on medication and has PTSD. Lulu has been retired from active duty but has too much military training and too many killer instincts to join a family. Briggs has been trying to land a high-paying and dangerous civilian gig overseas, but he needs a recommendation from his former captain, who has refused to do so because of concerns about Briggs being concussed, on medication and prone to dizziness.

But we need a movie, so the captain has a proposition: If Briggs will transport Lulu from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to Nogales, Arizona, for the aforementioned funeral service for Lulu's former partner, the captain will make that phone call and Briggs will get his job. As for Lulu, that will be the end of the line for her. After the service, Briggs will hand her off at a military base, where Lulu will be put down.

Off we go in Briggs' battered 1984 Bronco, and it has to be an old beater so it'll break down somewhere along the way - although mechanical failure is maybe the least daunting setback and least challenging adventure faced by Briggs and Lulu on their trip. They encounter a seemingly dangerous old couple (Kevin Nash and Jane Adams) who turn out to be something quite different, a former Army Ranger (Ethan Suplee) who teaches Briggs how to relate to Lulu, a thief who breaks into Briggs' car and steals his medication along with some valuable mementos, and even a pair of free-spirited, New Age women who invite Briggs home for the evening.

Choppy at times and indulging in familiar dog-movie scenarios on a steady basis, Dog isn't going to enter any annual conversations about the best canine films of all time, but Lulu is basically a good girl, and Briggs is basically a good guy, and we're glad they were given the high-concept road trip adventure they deserve.


Three stars

Channing Tatum

Reid Carolin and Channing Tatum

PG-13 for language, thematic elements, drug content and some suggestive material

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