Review: How is Channing Tatum’s directorial debut? Playful, laidback and pretty good
The underdog is a good position for Channing Tatum. Despite being one of the most beloved himbos of Hollywood — thanks to his affable screen presence, up-for-anything attitude and obvious good looks — it still feels like we, as a population, underestimate Tatum a bit, especially as he makes his directorial debut with “Dog.”
Tatum shares the director’s chair with frequent producing partner and “Magic Mike” and “Magic Mike XXL” writer Reid Carolin, who is also making his directorial debut. Carolin and Brett Rodriguez penned the script about a former Army Ranger, Jackson Briggs (Tatum), who is tasked with delivering another veteran to the funeral of an Army buddy who has died in a car accident. The vet in question happens to be Lulu, a Purple Heart-decorated combat dog, a Belgian Malinois whose handler was Jackson’s pal Riley.
Like Jackson, she’s riddled with bullet scars, emotional triggers and the residual effects of war trauma, and she’s no longer a useful asset to the U.S. Army. Jackson agrees to drive “Dog” (as he refers to her) from Washington to Arizona in hopes of receiving a recommendation for a private security contractor gig, despite the lingering effects of his own traumatic brain injury.
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Tatum, Carolin and Rodriguez have been collaborating, and grappling with the effects of war, since Kimberly Peirce’s 2008 film “Stop-Loss,” in which Tatum co-starred, with Carolin producing and Rodriguez serving as a military consultant. The trio also produced the 2017 HBO documentary “War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend,” which makes “Dog” feel like a natural culmination for this creative partnership. The amount of time that this project has been marinating, plus the informed understanding of PTSD, brain injuries and the role of the combat dog, all help the film to effortlessly convey complex issues.
It’s a more serious register than the effervescent celebration of beefcake that is the “Magic Mike” films, but filmmakers Tatum and Carolin know what the people want, too, and place Jackson in all manner of ridiculous situations to capitalize on Tatum’s natural charisma (and abs). Yes, we want to see Tatum navigate a potential sexual encounter with two tantric healing practitioners (Emmy Raver-Lampman and Nicole LaLiberte) in Portland, Ore.; bond with a pot-farming couple (Kevin Nash and Jane Adams) against all odds; and tangle with a San Francisco cop (Bill Burr) after attempting to scam a free hotel room. And yes, we also want to see Tatum emoting in a sopping wet T-shirt — which the filmmakers happily deliver.
The road-trip high jinks add a level of absurdity to the proceedings that keeps “Dog” from ever getting too heavy or maudlin. Typically, movies about dogs are unrelenting tear-jerkers, but Tatum and Carolin resist sentimentality, resulting in a film that’s refreshingly frank and surprising when the emotional moments do hit (and do they ever).
Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography has a propulsive flow, lingering over the natural beauty along the way, from a snowy Montana landscape to a Big Sur sunset. Editor Leslie Jones keeps the pace moving at an easy clip, and the film is incredibly watchable, thanks to the craft on display. While some storylines could have used more care and attention, Carolin and Tatum’s directorial instincts bring a fresh approach to this type of film. It’s a pleasure to say that this is one good “Dog.”
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rating: PG-13, for language, thematic elements, drug content and some suggestive material
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: In general release Feb. 18
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