Army vet with PTSD learns how to deal with his trauma by transporting cross-country a dog with PTSD. In one of the few Covid box office winners, this has found an audience by the old-fashioned method of word-of-mouth. The trailer pitched this as a kind of Chevy Chase comedy, hapless man with unruly dog, and alternatively as a feel-good picture, but once audiences saw it and realized what it was really about nobody seemed to care they had in equally old-fashioned manner been duped by the marketing and just settled in to watch the best film yet about Army veterans. Eschewing the heavy melodramatic approach of so many other pictures addressing much the same issue, this simple tale outscores them all by sticking to the knitting, a tale with, sure, plenty laughs, but again equally old-fashioned, a movie about friendship and redemption.
Channing Tatum has built a career on playing against his physical attributes, generally excelling at a character but more brawn than brain, often lost in the modern world and this is almost an ode to that screen persona. We have witnessed so many arrogance-driven pet (no pun intended) projects by actors that fall apart under the weight of their own hubris and lack of understanding of cinema, that it is astonishing to realize that not only was Tatum a producer on this movie (and possibly giving up his salary in return for a back-end to keep the budget low enough – just $15 million – to make it low-risk) but he is also the co-director.
If I wanted to be more high-falutin’ and appeal to the arthouse crown I would say this is a cross between Ulysses and Easy Rider (1969), a man on a long journey through a land he scarcely recognizes where his military heroism earns him no points, and the values he espouses are generally derided. It’s also close at times to Rain Man (1988) in that the protagonist just wants to get a job done until he discovers a deeper emotion at work. But even closer to the opposites unwillingly paired together that made movies like 48 Hours (1982) zing and by the end it is playing like a buddy comedy with a darker, emotional core.
Anyway, after all that rambling, let’s cut to the chase. Former Army Ranger Briggs (Channing Tatum) agrees to take former Army Ranger dog Lulu on a road trip down the Pacific coast to the funeral of the dog’s former handler. Briggs, on a whole load of meds to cope with his condition, is convinced that if he completes the task he will be re-enlisted in the Army. This self-delusion is obvious from the start. His short-term memory is so shot he can’t even take an order straight at the deli joint where he is employed. This is only a sample of the general chaos of his daily life. Lulu, a breed known as Belgian Malinois (no, I had never heard of it either), looks cute but, equally distraught by her wartime experiences and missing her master, is hell to handle.
Apart from what you might expect of the comedy that ensues from a half-crazy dog left with a disenfranchised handler, the odyssey element conjures up a variety of contemporary attitudes to the military. A soldier with the medals to prove his valor is treated royally in one city but the fact of his employment cuts no ice with the women he tries to chat up in bars. He also runs into racists, psychics and a variety of oddments.
Critics didn’t like this much, audiences (and not just dog-lovers) took a different attitude. As far as I can see critics objected to the fact that the movie did not dig deeper into the human ramifications of war and make a more pointed and I would guess more anti-military statement while I felt that exactly by ignoring such an obvious trap the movie scored more highly on an emotional level since Briggs is not the kind of character who would be able to process his experiences in any manner that could bring him closure.
If you like dogs, you’ll love this, if you like Tatum – who hasn’t been on the screen in four years – you’ll love this, but even if you thought like I did that this was far too mawkish to be of the slightest interest you will be in for a hell of a surprise in how quietly effective this picture is in getting the emotional job done.
This is far more worthy of plaudits than the arthouse-seeking mess of Power of the Dog (2021) which was so boring that I left the cinema halfway through.
This also marks the directing (or co-directing) debut of Reid Carolin, best known for his screenplay of Magic Mike (2012) and its sequel. If ever a little movie punched above its weight, taking on difficult subject through a clever audience-appealing stratagem, this is it.