“Animals are people too!” a liberal yahoo in Portland yells before nearly getting his face eaten off by a Belgian Malinois named Lulu in “Dog,” a movie that not-so-secretly agrees with that sentiment, even as it has a laugh at the clueless animal lover’s expense.
Lulu, it turns out, is a more complicated character than the one her human co-star, Channing Tatum, gets to play — which explains why it took three Malinoises to embody her on screen: one to do most of the “acting” (Britta), one to lie down (Lana) and one to look as incorrigibly homicidal as possible, like she could rip out your throat or murder Al-Qaida, if necessary (that would be Zuza). But Tatum had the much tougher job, trying to disappear into the skin of a battle-scarred ex-U.S. Army Ranger tasked with transporting Lulu across the Western United States while co-directing the project (with screenwriter and longtime producing partner Reid Carolin) at the same time.
Like John Travolta and Sylvester Stallone before him, Tatum is not an actor of particularly wide range, but he knows what his audience wants, and in “Dog,” he gives them more than they bargained for. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to those won over by “Magic Mike,” the popular 2012 meat parade that Tatum and Carolin hatched together, tapping directly into the movie star’s strengths: “Dog” is a lowbrow but by no means lazy crowd-pleaser, one where the fun that Tatum and company took in making it translates directly to the pleasure we take in watching.
On the surface, it looks like a familiar enough road movie: Back from Afghanistan, making submarine sandwiches for minimum wage somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Jackson Briggs (Tatum) wants to redeploy, but a brain injury makes that impossible. Instead, he accepts the domestic assignment — a thankless errand, really — of transporting Lulu all the way to Arizona for the funeral of Jackson’s old Ranger buddy Riley Rodriguez (Eric Urbiztondo), who helped train her. But this is no easy cross-country trip, since both Briggs and Lulu are dealing with some pretty serious trauma from their time in the service, and it doesn’t take much to trigger either of them.
What results is closer to “First Blood” (the original Rambo movie) than “Turner and Hooch,” as Carolin’s script confronts the impact of PTSD on Army veterans, human and canine alike. It’s hardly a new subject, but it is an important one, and the team certainly could have bypassed it altogether and gone for a cuddlier approach. Instead, Tatum and Carolin use this easy-sell bonding exercise to focus on how those who serve the country are left to deal with the lingering wounds, both physical and psychological, on their own. As for the dogs who served alongside — now here’s the part no one wants to hear — sometimes the damage is so great, there’s no choice but to put them down.
Briggs knows when he collects Lulu that their mission is a performative one: Rodriguez was uniquely bonded to the animal, and now his family expects to see this legendary “hero dog” at his funeral. They don’t want to be reminded that Lulu, like their son/brother/beloved, came back broken. (Rodriguez drove himself into a tree at 120 mph, Briggs learns, slow to accept what that must mean.) And they certainly don’t want to learn that once Rodriguez is buried, the Army intends to euthanize the dog. That’s an even bigger bummer for audiences, since, like Briggs, we spend an hour and a half falling in love with her. But if you think that Tatum (who gave Lulu the same name as his own recently deceased pooch) plans to follow this horse all the way to the glue factory, you’ve underestimated his instincts as an entertainer.
That self-awareness is clear from the opening scene, in which Tatum awakens, sweaty and shirtless, on the floor of his cabin, panting like a dog. Sure, Briggs’ night terrors tell us something about the character, but mostly, they reassure us that Tatum — whose broad back, bulging pecs and discreetly flexed triceps are both his “instrument” and his selling point — hasn’t abandoned his hunk status, or else gotten too serious to deny audiences a show. Where once this industry was defined by great thespians, its top tier is now crowded with ex-soap stars and underwear models, in whose company Tatum is still right at home. (Funnily enough, Tatum’s cutesy talking-to-dogs voice sounds a lot like Mark Wahlberg’s singsongy talking-to-people voice.) Charisma comes easy to Tatum, and though Briggs is dealing with brain damage, there’s more going on upstairs than there was for Jenko in “21 Jump Street.”
The least convincing aspect of “Dog,” then, is the dog. Lulu is introduced like a deadly weapon with fur, and though her counterparts (Zuza mostly) rip the stuffing out of car seats and chase down a kaftan-wearing doctor in a San Francisco hotel, it’s hard to believe that this particular “Maligator” is an actual threat. Instead, we’re watching a trio of trained dogs play a trained dog, and they/she seem to be doing precisely what they’re told, even when said behavior catches Briggs by surprise — say, interrupting an “epic” threesome or bolting into the woods to locate an illegal pot farm.
Animals may not be people, but they do have a complex psychology, and it’s gratifying to see what could have been a one-dimensional buddy movie doing its best to convey the interior emotions of both parties. Turns out Tatum isn’t half bad behind the camera either, even if it’s tough to know how he and Carolin split the responsibility. They’re easy to underestimate, but between this and “Magic Mike,” the pair have proven awfully savvy with their pet projects.