Review by Gino Sassani
Armies have been using dogs in battle for thousands of years. The Romans would turn the dogs on their enemy as a signal of the approaching legions, hence the expression “Let loose the dogs of war”. But in recent decades dogs have found a new, perhaps more noble calling during wartime. Dogs have been used to search for lost soldiers. They have been trained to assist wounded soldiers.
They have also learned to sniff out explosives, helping to clear mines and saving the lives of their handlers and hundreds of soldiers and civilians. That’s the kind of job the German Shepherd Rex does for the US Military. The movie Megan Leavey is a bit of a character study and you’ll fall in love with the dog just as you do Megan Leavey.
Megan’s (Kate Mara) life has been pretty much a screw-up, and she’s facing pressure to get it together. She decides to join the Marines. At first it appears she’s going to fail at this choice, too, but slowly she begins to get her training on track and starts to make the grade. Her inspiration? She’s attracted to the canine unit, where Megan was first sent for punishment, but then discovers the dog Rex. The veterinarians have a problem with as they don’t think he’s trainable.
They think Rex is too aggressive, and very much like Megan, has a mind of his own. So Megan puts in extra effort in the hopes she can join the unit and work with Rex. Of course, she ends up getting her wish, and the two are sent to Iraq, where they are able to save lives by locating mines so they can be disarmed. It’s a dangerous job, not only for the danger of a mine exploding, but the enemy targets the dog teams. Wounded in action, the pair return home where the true battle begins. Here they find that Rex has been labeled unadoptable and will not allow Megan to keep the dog.
The film is an ambitious one that tends to have some trouble with pacing. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite is relatively inexperienced, and it shows throughout the production. She is, of course, best known for the controversial Blackfish documentary that led to an economic backlash against parks like Sea World. Fortunately, it’s that animal passion that shows through here and saves a film that could have been instantly forgettable.
Credit actress Kate Mara, who really gets her first chance to carry a film here and proves she has the chops to do it. There’s some heartfelt chemistry here between Megan and Rex, and it does a lot to overcome the sluggish pacing. The film avoids the usual saccharine kind of person-dog relationship and builds this one on deeper stuff that rings more true than contrived. You’ll find yourself engaged enough to have the patience to weather the overlong 2-hour runtime. That’s a tall order, and Mara truly pulls it off.
When I talk about pacing issues, they have more to do with a relentless journey down too many side tracks that never completely play out, so that a good 40 minutes of the film is throwaway plot points and needless clutter. There’s a romantic relationship that develops out of nowhere and ends up going the same place. All the while the Iraq segment appears truncated and leaving me wanting to see more of the heroics and bonding between Megan and Rex. The tragic incident comes far too quickly, particularly when you measure it against the excessive fluff. I think the final third of the film could have been much more powerful.
Megan Leavey has an impressive supporting cast that includes: Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), Edie Falco (The Sopranos), Will Patton (Falling Skies), Common (Hell On Wheels) and Tom Felton (The Flash).
In the end Cowperthwaite is still thinking with a documentary mentality. We need more than just the facts and the necessary emotional beats. Too much time can be spent building a story so that not enough is spent telling the story. Even with the baggage, Megan Leavey manages to shine and is worth the time to watch. You’ll leave with an emotional reward that strikes at the heart of dog lovers in particular. “There’s no crying in baseball or the Marines … or maybe there is.”
Cast: Kate Mara, Ramón Rodríguez, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, Will Patton, Sam Keeley, Common, Edie Falco. Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for war violence, language, suggestive material, and thematic elements. Running time: 1 hr. 56 min.
The comments within this review are the critic’s expressed opinions.