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The power of the 'Dog' makes this heartwarming Channing Tatum tale a winner

More than anything (topless Channing!), “Dog” tells the much-needed story of Army Ranger dogs, and their affliction.
Credit: United Artists Releasing

ST. LOUIS — Here’s the thing. The new Channing Tatum movie isn’t what the previews have made it out to be, which is some kind of easy-to-digest movie star Valentine’s Day week later slice of heaven for the ladies. Granted, it does go down like a smashed burger at Hi-Pointe Drive-In, giving viewers something light yet meaningful, heartwarming yet equally powerful.

But “Dog” is aptly titled, because it’s more about Lulu, played by a gorgeous Belgian Malinois (think of a German Shepherd, but more high strung with a lot more energy). She was the work dog for a deceased Army Ranger, who happened to be the best friend of Briggs, a former Ranger himself.

Played confidently and perfectly by Tatum, Briggs carries his own baggage and dark demons from his time in the field of war, something he shares with Lulu. So, the movie quickly becomes a road trip yarn for a pair of creatures, one human and the other a dog, trying to find their way back to the light.

More than anything, “Dog” tells the much-needed story of Army Ranger dogs and their affliction. Most movies describe in detail how the trauma of war can produce long-term effects for human soldiers, but they usually skip over the dog’s internal struggle. Here, it's the focus of the screenplay.

The magic in this movie is the even-keeled balance that the pacing ride strikes for the majority of its breezy 100-minute run time. It doesn’t get too low or too high, staying away from manipulative melodrama while not sinking into the depressing depths of honest PTSD storytelling.

While the focus of the story sits with Lulu, the star of the show is still Tatum. “Dog” represents his directing debut. He shares filmmaking honors with Reid Carolin, who also made his directing debut here and co-wrote the sweet-as-pie yet funny script with Brett Rodriguez. Tatum is in just about every scene of this movie, anchoring the heavier and light moments, which include impersonating a blind soldier to get his dog a worthy bed. Hearing him comically shout, “Oh my! I can see,” after rescuing Lulu from a misunderstood attack at a hotel balances out a potential heavy moment.

The “Magic Mike” star also gets some great scenes with his longtime friend and former wrestling giant, Kevin Nash (whom Tatum still calls “Big Sexy”). Outside of the always-reliable Jane Adams and a few other cast members, this is Tatum’s show and he reminds you what his gifts are. Ones that start with charisma and end with pathos. This role felt personal to the star, and he nails it.

You’re going to cry in this movie, especially at the end. A certain part of the climax, which takes place at a soldier’s funeral, is one of the most heartwarming moments I’ve seen in a movie. It’s one of those scenes that a movie builds to in order to produce an emotional knockout punch, and it absolutely succeeds.

“Dog” is the perfect February movie. A film for the whole family (its PG-13 rating is mostly harmless) that eschews the opposite charm of a heavyweight Oscar movie. The makers of this movie were smart, even if they didn’t market it properly. They got a well-liked movie star with good looks and paired him with a special dog for a special kind of story: How dogs help humans just as much as people help them.

If “Dog” gets one thing very right, it’s that post traumatic stress disorder affects animals in a real way, but just the right amount of human connection can help tear that affliction down. We're all rescues in one way or another.

Enjoy this one. I sure did, watching it twice.

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