During Dog’s opening title sequence, brief glimpses of photos, poems and sketches of the titular hound flash on-screen in quick succession. It’s soon apparent that these mementos are far from generic scrapbook fodder—outfitted in canine army garb, Lulu the Belgian Malinois is featured posing with dead bodies, and ballpoint pen doodles of her are always sure to feature an added red splotch across her snout. Lulu is no lapdog, she’s a trained killer and tasked with mauling and maiming any individual or entity that threatens American “freedom.” For those wary of the way the U.S. military propaganda machine is intrinsically tied to Hollywood, there’s an immediate sense of dread that Dog will be a senseless glorification of war and nationalism. However, co-directors Channing Tatum (who stars) and Reid Carolin (who penned the script) manage to sneak in some loose ruminations on certain hypocrisies inherent to serving in the armed forces. While the direction never feels particularly innovative, Tatum gives another knock-out performance—often more charming than his “noodle” of a co-star.
The first time the audience sees Jackson Briggs (Tatum), he is drenched in sweat (conveniently shirtless) and desperately making his way to a bottle of medicine and a glass of water on his bedside table. Clearly in the throes of some sort of recurring episode, it’s later revealed that Briggs suffered a serious head injury during his most recent deployment. Barred from returning to combat until the right people vouch for his well-being, it’s almost auspicious that he just so happens to receive word that one of his fellow Army Rangers has died, and there’s a service being held for soldiers who’d like to honor his memory. Finally face-to-face with superiors who’ve been dodging his calls, Briggs cuts a deal with his former C.O. (Luke Forbes): If he successfully transports the fallen soldier’s dog 1,500 miles to Nogales, Arizona for the funeral, he’ll make that long-awaited call. It’s a no-brainer for Briggs—he remembers Lulu as a sweet-natured pup who just so happened to be able to spring into action when the threat of “terrorism” arose. But Briggs and Lulu have more in common now than he realizes, namely that their psyches have suffered long-term, irreparable damage from their time in the line of duty. The duo are met with countless obstacles en-route to Arizona, but these mishaps only serve as bonding experiences for two wounded bodies and guarded souls.
From the get-go, it’s clear that Briggs’ only concern is getting back on the battlefield. “I only fly to countries that end in ‘stan’,” he quips at a representative over the phone. Even when it’s insinuated that Lulu is to be dropped off for euthanasia after the burial of her owner, he’s totally unmoved—and it doesn’t help that the dog is extremely aggressive and must be muzzled and caged for the majority of the trip. And it really really doesn’t help that Lulu chews up his truck’s upholstery and breaks up his tantric threesome with her incessant barking before it can even begin. Of course, the two eventually become more comfortable in each other’s company, but Briggs’ stars-and-stripes attitude never falters—though it becomes clear that the majority of the people he encounters on the road don’t think too highly of his military status. Several women in Portland bars aren’t shy when imparting their opinions on the innate evil of the U.S. military, though they’re happy to accept a free drink from him in exchange for their judgmental rant. Though this highlights the reality of young people’s relative inability to stop projecting the Twitter discourse they read online onto their every real-life exchange, these actors are portraying mere caricatures. These depictions might keep conservative butts in theaters, but will feel corny among those who might otherwise have seen unflattering aspects of themselves in these self-righteous urbanites.
Make no mistake, Dog is not out here dismantling the military industrial complex, but it does poke holes through the supposed promises it offers. This is specifically explored in the way that this favor runs Briggs totally ragged just so that he can put his body and mind at risk once more, likely resulting in further injury and trauma. The entire process seems even more ridiculous when this adorable dog’s life is literally on the line, the only thing saving her from a state-sanctioned execution being one guy’s desperation to “serve our country.” Even the most red, white and blue-blooded among us can’t deny how awful it is that instead of attempting rehabilitation, the military would cruelly put down a dog they themselves bred to do our imperialistic bidding. In fact, Lulu’s world has been all but devoid of domesticated creature comforts. According to a psychic (Jane Adams), what Lulu craves most in the world is a bed, simply because “she’s never slept in one”. Heartstring-pulling aside, Dog also has the guts to raise a few significant questions: Why are suicide, homelessness and addiction so prevalent among veterans? How can we tolerate the idea of casting an entire culture as the enemy? What is the point of pledging allegiance to a country that can’t even ensure that each citizen is afforded a decent livelihood?
More than anything, Dog is an excuse to bawl your eyes out while still inspiring you to crack a smile, a generic formula that certainly doesn’t fail here. Though the film doesn’t break any new ground in the realms of buddy comedies, road movies or teary-eyed tales of man’s best friend, it does take itself seriously enough to actually, if superficially, engage with the institution it depicts with some semblance of a critical gaze. Most viewers will leave the theater with a saccharine-soaked emotional high, but after that powerful sentimental cocktail wears off, certain fleeting images—like a homeless man callously pushed to the ground by Briggs or a Muslim man tackled in pursuit by Lulu—might re-play in one’s mind, their disquieting cruelty lingering long after the dog and Tatum makes their last charming appearance.
Directors: Channing Tatum, Reid Carolin
Writers: Reid Carlin
Stars: Channing Tatum, Jane Adams, Kevin Nash, Q’orianka Kilcher, Ethan Suplee, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Nicole LaLiberte, Luke Forbes, Ronnie Gene Blevins
Release Date: February 18, 2022 (MGM)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan