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Dog is a comedy that deals with some heavy subject matter underneath the laughs. Channing Tatum plays Jackson Briggs, an Army Ranger who has been sidelined from duty due to a significant concussive injury. He desperately wants to get back in, but his captain won't sign off on the idea. An opportunity presents itself when Briggs is asked to drive a fallen colleague's dog from Washington to Arizona in time for the man's funeral. If he does this seemingly simple task, he'll get the recommendation he desires. The dog, Lulu, served in Afghanistan and is now severely aggressive from trauma.

Their road trip is packed with all kinds of humorous misadventures, from Lulu destroying the interior of Briggs' pickup truck to a run-in with a marijuana farmer and his hippie wife. It eventually becomes clear, however, that Briggs is just as traumatized as the canine he's transporting. He's separated from his wife and child, depressed about his injury, and just generally directionless.

You don't have to be a Rhodes scholar to figure out that Dog will ultimately be about how Briggs and Lulu heal each other. Making a comedy out of post-combat trauma might seem like a dubious idea, at best. The movie deftly sidesteps any potential ickiness through tone and sincerity. None of the jokes are about the trauma suffered by either main character. Instead, it focuses on the odd couple pairing of man and dog. Laughs are derived from interactions between them, as when Briggs tries to take a drink of water and Lulu lunges forward, grabbing the bottle right out of his hand. Others come from the crazy situations Briggs has a knack for putting himself in. A sequence where he pretends to be blind and uses his military status to score a free hotel room is a good example of that.

What soldiers and animals went through during the Afghanistan war is never mocked or looked down upon. Dog knows that's weighty material for a piece of mass entertainment anyway, so it simply pays respect to those who served our country and shows empathy for what they went though. Tatum and his co-director Reid Carolin are careful not to overdo it. They seem to understand how easy it would be to use war trauma as a form of manipulation. Subsequently, they address the topic enough to honor our veterans without exploiting it. Having a delicate touch is a big part of why the movie works.

Channing Tatum has proven himself a fine comedic actor in 21 Jump Street and his recent Free Guy cameo, among other things. Dog once again makes use of this skill. He earns consistent laughs with his delivery of punchlines and wisecracks. A couple moments allow him to engage in physical comedy, which he also handles beautifully. Playing Briggs lets him marry that side of his talent to the dramatic side. Rather than going for broad laughs, Tatum ensures the humor springs naturally from the character's personality. Similarly, he conveys Briggs' woes without turning maudlin.

Dog is a little bit more episodic than plot-driven, and you'll know where the story is going long before it gets there. The movie has a sweetness that's hard to resist, though. It expresses a profound love for our canine friends, recognizing how loyal they are. Watching Briggs and Lulu find common ground speaks to the intense bond that can form between people and dogs. Often funny and with an appealing tenderness at its core, this is a feel-good picture whose warmth compensates for any little flaws it may contain.

out of four

Dog is rated PG-13 for language, thematic elements, drug content and some suggestive material. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.