Not your usual tale of war heroes

The true story of a woman Marine and her bomb-sniff­ing K-9 is com­pellingly told.

Los Angeles Times - - AT THE MOVIES - By Robert Abele cal­en­dar@la­

Leashes and heart­strings get pulled in “Me­gan Leavey,” an even-tem­pered slice of pro-an­i­mal sen­ti­men­tal­ity that may not be the smoothest piece of film­mak­ing but wears its emo­tions hon­estly and ben­e­fits from of­fer­ing a look at a rarely ex­plored arena of hu­man-an­i­mal re­la­tion­ships: dogs trained for com­bat.

The story is based on the true ex­pe­ri­ences of a young woman (Kate Mara) who, in 2003, traded in a dead-end ex­is­tence in up­state New York for the life of a Marine and found her call­ing with a four-legged Ger­man shep­herd named Rex sniff­ing out IEDs in Iraq. Their bond, which com­bines the rec­og­niz­ably awe-in­spir­ing con­tours of pet stew­ard­ship with the deeper con­nec­tion that be­ing in com­bat to­gether brings, is the emo­tional core of “Me­gan Leavey.” It also marks the nar­ra­tive fea­ture de­but of di­rec­tor Gabriela Cow­perth­waite, whose “Black­fish” was a non­fic­tion sen­sa­tion, and who seems to sin­gle­hand­edly be look­ing to change the def­i­ni­tion of “crea­ture fea­ture.”

As the movie opens, we see Me­gan bristling at be­ing un­der the same roof as her di­vorced, self-cen­tered mom (Edie Falco), who’s liv­ing with a dumb-grin boyfriend (Will Pat­ton). Join­ing the Marines is cer­tainly a change, but a drunken night with gal pals sig­nals be­hav­ioral is­sues to her su­pe­ri­ors, and she’s rel­e­gated to ken­nel-clean­ing duty as a re­sult. The fate of one iras­ci­ble ca­nine, how­ever, spurs her to vie for a spot on the train­ing team. Even­tu­ally as­signed to Rex, the pair hit it off, and they’re de­ployed to Ra­madi and Fal­lu­jah, com­plet­ing mul­ti­ple mis­sions that keep their fel­low sol­diers alive. The hor­rors of war even­tu­ally take their toll, and back home Me­gan has to find an ex­tra re­serve of for­ti­tude to get through an es­pe­cially try­ing sep­a­ra­tion from Rex.

You can grasp the thought process be­hind giv­ing this ma­te­rial to Cow­perth­waite: “Black­fish” felt like a movie first, a doc­u­men­tary sec­ond. Yet, early on, “Me­gan Leavey” has the op­po­site crackle — it plays real rather than mas­saged. It trusts you’ll fol­low it, and that cre­ates its own good­will. There’s a breezy, day-to­day verisimil­i­tude to its pro­tag­o­nist’s road from dis­af­fected layabout to half-there re­cruit and, fi­nally, once she locks eyes with Rex — an adorably com­mand­ing pres­ence — Marine with a pur­pose. It’s also a movie that doesn’t wear its is­sues on its stripes. With­out feel­ing the need to brand it­self ei­ther a woman-in-the-mil­i­tary movie or an­i­mal-ac­tivism yarn, Cow­perth­waite qui­etly goes about hu­man­iz­ing ev­ery­thing so that both of these el­e­ments, which might get treated as hot-but­ton top­ics else­where, gain a kind of un­der­stated mo­men­tum all their own. Sure, that gives it the slight tinge of a chummy, pol­i­tics-free, armed-ser­vices re­cruit­ment video, es­pe­cially when Com­mon’s around to play the sup­port­ive sergeant al­ways this-close from break­ing into a smile. But the bat­tle scenes are direct and tense, if not ex­actly orig­i­nal, and even when the screen­play tosses in a flir­ta­tion with a fel­low K-9er (the charm­ing Ra­mon Ro­driguez), “Me­gan Leavey” makes it feel like an ex­tra color in a sol­dier’s story, not a pre­dictable story beat for a hero­ine.

The home front sec­ond half is chop­pier, though, as if it can’t quite fig­ure out how to pull all its strands to­gether into a sat­is­fy­ing con­clu­sion be­yond the gener­i­cally heart­warm­ing one. It’s a shame Mara is en­listed to cry so much too, which sug­gests a lack of in­ge­nu­ity about how to dra­ma­tize Me­gan’s spe­cial­ized cock­tail of PTSD and fear for Rex. Mara’s up for it all, but the nudge to­ward sap­pi­ness over messi­ness feels like the slight­est step back­ward. And yet the char­ac­ter’s ef­forts to get po­lit­i­cal about com­bat-scarred an­i­mals, and treat­ing them no dif­fer­ently than any hu­man vet­eran, is le­git­i­mately stir­ring. It helps “Me­gan Leavey” ul­ti­mately be­come a rar­ity in mil­i­tary-themed cin­ema: an af­fect­ing por­trait of two war heroes, nei­ther of whom is a hu­man male. Will won­der women never cease? One hopes not.

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