It might be reductive to divide Channing Tatum’s career down the middle at the point where he first worked with Steven Soderbergh. After all, the star gave some promising performances before he got the hell beaten out of him in Haywire and appeared in some affable junk afterward. But over the past decade, Tatum has seemed like an actor reborn with a newfound interest in complicating and cooling down his smoldering-hunk routine—right down to his recent willingness to take a nearly five-year break from acting. Though he’s done some voiceover work in the interim, his last live-action leading role before the new movie Dog was in Soderbergh’s 2017 film Logan Lucky. Now Tatum’s returned to follow in the footsteps of fellow Soderbergh collaborator and professional handsome man George Clooney by directing a movie with his producer, pal, and frequent screenwriter Reid Carolin.
Carolin also wrote Tatum’s Magic Mike vehicles (one directed by Soderbergh, the other merely shot and edited by him). Compared to that soon-to-be-trilogy, Dog has both less and more crowd-pleasing in mind. It contains no spectacularly gyrating dance numbers and has Tatum playing an ex-soldier concealing the mental and physical pain he’s endured after suffering a traumatic brain injury, as he makes his way to a fallen comrade’s funeral. It also, at times, resembles a remake of the inspirational Megan Leavey, as Tatum’s Briggs has been entrusted with the care of Lulu, his friend’s army-ranger canine who—like Briggs and everyone else he knows—hasn’t been the same since returning home from war. Briggs has agreed to transport the disagreeable Lulu, who he mostly just refers to as “dog,” to that military funeral, in exchange for a superior officer’s sign-off on a private security job.
On a pure story level, the beginning, middle, and end of Dog are as predictable as a Nicholas Sparks romance (one of which a pre-Magic Tatum already starred in). Little suspense will be generated over the matter of whether Briggs will soften his exasperation toward Lulu, who in turn does not end the movie by stalking and killing her former human ally in an orgy of bloodshed. Instead, the nice man makes friends with the good dog.
Yet within these contours, there are some pleasantly unpredictable misadventure vignettes where Briggs and Lulu encounter various oddball Americans, the film maneuvering nimbly to avoid both melodrama and broad comedy. And while giving a performance that never ventures too far outside his personal hunk-goofball-soldier Venn diagram, Tatum turns out to be one half of a solid directing team.
It’s clear early on that Tatum and Carolin’s filmmaking will rely more on unfussy chops than easy heartstring tugs. A couple of simple expositional phone call scenes play without a cut, allowing the camera to capture extra details of Briggs’ life that won’t need to be explained further. (Would it be stretching to call these scenes Soderberghian?) Perhaps most impressive, Tatum and Carolin manage to stage a later scene around that lowliest of cinematic emergency buttons, the dog reaction shot. During a potentially emotional reunion, Briggs leaves Lulu in the car, and the movie follows him to the doorstep of someone else’s home. Before the confrontation can play out, Tatum and Carolin cut back to Lulu, waiting in the car, and what the dog sees—her human friend silently leaving the confrontation, rather than acting out a scene the audience could probably write themselves—is heartbreakingly effective.
Dog is hokier and softer-hearted than Magic Mike, its old-fashioned respectfulness less skeptical (and also less lively!) than that canny critique of hustler capitalism. But there are some connections to be drawn between the two films, both of which address the Tatum character’s fraught relationship with his own body. Haunted by persistent migraines (and not, mercifully, by boilerplate combat flashbacks), Briggs tries his best to push through the pain with ranger-level bravado. He’s not much good at taking care of a dog because he’s not much good at taking care of himself. The death of his friend, who clearly had similarly untended problems, hangs over the movie, even when it’s offering canine antics like Lulu screwing up her temporary master’s attempt to gild the lily by masquerading as a blind veteran toting an adorable dog.
Not groundbreaking stuff. But as a whole, Dog is credible as a small-scale drama with some moments of light, puppyish comedy, from the man and the mutt. Like Clooney before him, Tatum hasn’t quite made his own Soderbergh movie. He has, however, made a surprisingly good one.