A few years ago, my stepdad tried to encourage my writing by sending me one of the chain emails he got from his group of ex-military friends. It was a likely apocryphal story about a veteran essentially inheriting the dog of one of his squad mates who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. The crux of the story being that the dog wouldn’t eat, drink, or play with its master gone until the soldier found a note with some code words that triggered the dog to be its normal, happy self. The idea behind sending me the email was to see if I could write a screenplay adapting that story. I never really made much of an effort on it, as so much other stuff got in the way, and my emotional/mental state at the time wasn’t in the best of places for me to flesh out my creativity. It eventually fell by the wayside.
Last weekend, Channing Tatum and his producing partner Reid Carolin both made their respective directorial debuts with Dog, which is what I imagine an adaptation of that email might have turned into had I bothered to write and workshop it. Thankfully, the movie is way better than anything I could have mustered at the time.
Tatum stars as an Army Ranger named Jackson Briggs, who’s applying for a post in the Diplomatic Corps, but can’t get his commanding officer’s recommendation because he suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury in combat. Even though Briggs has been given medical clearance, and for the most part has his symptoms under control (migraines, blurred vision, and the occasional seizure), he can’t get a new posting, and his military ID has even expired.
However, Briggs gets his chance to earn the recommendation by completing one last mission off the books. One of his comrades in arms, Rodriguez (I’m guessing so named after one of the screenwriters, Brett Rodriguez) has died, and his family has requested that the dog he trained in war, named Lulu, be present at her master’s funeral.
Now, this setup is kind of cheesy, not to mention the fact that a name like Jackson Briggs sounds like a rejected G.I. Joe character. Obviously the story is going to be about man and dog not getting along, but then through a series of shared experiences, will come to trust and love each other, forming a lasting bond. You didn’t even have to see the trailer to know that’s where we’re going here.
But there are interesting elements along the margins that make this compelling. First, Rodriguez didn’t die in battle, but in a car crash where it’s heavily implied that PTSD was a factor. Second, Lulu herself is traumatized from what she’s seen in her time in uniform as well, as she’s often muzzled due to an extremely jittery nature, and she’ll attack anyone who touches her ears. It’s played for laughs early on, but it’s a serious look at the idea that it’s not just human soldiers who suffer long-term effects from their service. In fact, the Army has decided to put Lulu down after she appears at the funeral, as she’s too emotionally volatile to adopt out to a new family. Her circumstances are truly tragic.
Third, and this is something I found fascinating because I didn’t know about it before, one of Rodriguez’s personal effects is something called the “I Love Me Book.” Having never served, I was completely unaware of this, but it’s a real thing that appears to date back to at least the 90s. Soldiers will keep a personal three-ring binder full of their achievements, photos, medals, letters, or any other assorted records from their tenure. Also called the “Brag Book,” it’s essentially a military scrapbook, but it can have an insightful mix of personal and professional contents. The film opens with a montage of Rodriguez’s book, much of which is devoted to Lulu. There are photos, a DVD of her “favorite” episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, and a series of handwritten notes from Rodriguez to Lulu, thanking her for being his companion and source of emotional support when he was at his lowest. It’s quite a loving tribute, and it sets the stage for this road trip adventure better than any clunky exposition.
The journey takes place from Washington state down to Arizona, stopping along the way in Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, mostly so Tatum can make fun of hippies and soft people. It’s funny at times, but also extremely heavy-handed. We get it, the character doesn’t like Oregon weirdos. Move on.
Still, we do get to enjoy some pretty hilarious set pieces. Briggs tries to score a threesome with two tantric roommates only to be interrupted by Lulu’s barking and a PETA activist. When Lulu runs into the woods, Briggs is captured by an aging pot farmer (Kevin Nash), whose wife believes she can psychically communicate with the dog (Jane Adams). She tells Briggs that what Lulu wants most of all is to sleep in a big, comfy bed one time, so he poses as a blind man and uses her to get a free room in a luxury hotel, leading to some slightly off-color shenanigans and a run-in with a cop played by Bill Burr, who instantly elevates any project he’s in.
The dynamic between Briggs and Lulu is really well-executed, mostly because of the three dogs playing Lulu. No offense to Channing Tatum, but they’re the stars. Throughout most of the movie, Lulu is extremely clingy when she’s not getting into mischief, but she refuses to eat out of Briggs’ hand. It makes for some cute consternation when she barks up a storm as he tries to leave the room, but won’t directly engage with him when he stays. It’s heavily hinted that the reason is because of Briggs being emotionally distant, most notably the fact that he only refers to Lulu as “Dog” for the first two acts.
However, everyone else who encounters her knows exactly how to give her the love and attention she needs, allowing her to open up and be the most cuddly girl in the world. No better is this illustrated than when the pair stop off in Los Angeles and meet Noah (Ethan Suplee), a fellow vet who trains dogs and adopted Lulu’s brother when he retired from service. “You’ve never had a Lulu hug?” he asks incredulously as she jumps up on her hind legs to wrap the front ones around his shoulders, demonstrating just how easy it is to win her affection.
The ending is predictable, and the stakes are false, because there’s no way in this family-friendly film (that’s somehow PG-13) that there’d be anything but a happy ending. And honestly, the subplot about Briggs’ ex and daughter just feels tacked on to pad the runtime. But that’s okay, because the film isn’t really trying to reach for anything beyond a cute and funny distraction with an adorable canine. The fact that it occasionally does end up saying something a bit more profound than expected – particularly with regard to trauma and the “Love” book – more than makes up for any narrative weakness. It had me smiling the whole way.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you know about the “I Love Me Book?” Who’s the best doggo in your life? Let me know!