Swiftly doing away with any extraneous guff, the title of Channing Tatum’s to-the-point co-directorial debut Dog doesn’t need a journey, a way home or even a purpose, it just needs a dog. So dog lovers eager for a dog movie primarily about a dog will be reassured by the knowledge that Dog does feature plenty of dog but they might be a little surprised about what else the film has to offer, an odd and atonal ramble across the US where the dog comes first and plotting comes a long way after.
It’s been four years since we’ve seen Tatum on screen, (he’s been heard in a couple of animated films since 2017) and Dog is a slickly calculated comeback vehicle, as calculated as they come. He gets to be macho but sensitive, shirtless but sometimes merely wet-shirted and, most importantly, he gets to frolic with a cute dog, a hard-to-resist Belgian shepherd called Lulu, partly inspired by his real pet Lulu who died three years ago. Tatum plays an army ranger suckered into transporting his late friend’s difficult dog to his funeral. Both man and mutt have been traumatised by their time serving overseas and the long drive ahead gives them both a chance to learn something from the other in between a series of increasingly bizarre run-ins.
For while the general structure of Dog is as basic as its title, the tone is far harder to figure out, a warm-hearted family film striving for a hip edge, the question of who this is for being asked on a loop throughout. The scrapes the pair get into include a failed tantric threesome with two women in Portland, a kidnap on a weed farm involving a tranquilliser and an axe and a racist attack at a high-end hotel leading to time behind bars. The script, from co-director and long-time Tatum collaborator Reid Carolin and former soldier Brett Rodriguez, is both strange and sanitised, caught between appealing to younger kids and also to their much older brothers; what if dog movie but cool.
Whatever the aim of this all might have been, it’s muddied with every new escalation. The aforementioned racist incident is a particular flub, with Tatum’s character feigning blindness to get a fancy room for him and his dog, who is then triggered by the sight of a Middle Eastern man and so attacks him. There’s a way this could have been handled with some delicacy and interrogation (what sort of racial profiling has infected the instincts of some army-trained dogs?) but it’s in the centre of an absurd comic set piece, and all it does is remind us that while the film takes ample time to focus on the crippling PTSD experienced by many US soldiers (one of the script’s finest and most sensitive qualities, mind), there’s no effort to remind us of the other side of that equation. It’s not handled with the horror it deserves or even that much embarrassment from Tatum’s character. It’s just another weird thing that happens in a movie full of weird things.
While a reliably commanding Tatum works well with the dog (he’s clearly a devoted dog owner), the script leaps past too many of the pair’s key milestones together. We’re told, and shown, that Lulu is violent and impossible from the outset but there’s not quite enough legwork involved in showing us how he manages to tame her (a brief, batty episode involving Jane Adams establishing a psychic connection to her does not suffice) and it’s one of many lazy A to C pole vaults the film does to rush us toward the finale. It’s a collection of uneven episodes – a wordless Q’orianka Kilcher and a racist Bill Burr also briefly crop up – stitched together by copious shots of Tatum sitting on his car in a tight T-shirt next to a sunset. Dog wants to be that sturdy plane movie you find hard to surf past when you see it on cable in the ensuing years and while it looks and sounds the part (Thomas Newman score – check), there’s not the slick storytelling and big emotional beats to match. It might be a pet project for Tatum but it’s a rough ride for the rest of us.