As a rule, being screamed at isn’t one of my favorite things, but I have the strong feeling that if I were to suddenly find myself parachuted into basic training in a Hollywood film, I wouldn’t be too fazed, having seen so many boot camp depictions there already. Watching them, all it seems you have to do to get along is bark an appropriate yes, sergeant/no, sergeant and make sure you never start to smile at anything, however funny, lest you be ordered to “wipe that smirk off your face!” In “Megan Leavey,” opening today, we get some of that familiar hazing of the heroine (Kate Mara) and her fellow recruits, but we rest assured that beneath that tough-as-nails exterior lies a heart of gold. Also that the dog Kate eventually bonds with has a literally worse bark than bite.
Kate plays the titular Megan (based on a real life story) who leaves her home in New York and winds up enlisting in the Marines circa 2000 after struggling with family – and possibly substance abuse – issues. Once there, she continues to have difficulty finding focus, not being particularly adept at people reading or wall climbing. When, after she develops social skills for plot purposes, and gets in trouble by sneaking off-campus one night with a couple of girlfriends to a bar, she is admonished by her platoon leader (Common) and sent to do custodial work in the kennels. There she meets Rex (played by a variety of adorable German Shepherd lookalikes), a dog with a bad reputation and begins to work hard so that she can meet the qualifications needed to pair up with such dogs, who serve as “sniffers” of explosives. There’s also a potential love interest in the form of Ramon Rodriguez who appears promising (although he’s not a Yankees fan). But her real bond is with Rex, and when they are shipped overseas to Iraq, it will come as no surprise to the viewer when they both more than prove their mettle. However, that’s just the first half – and the second – even more poignant, involves Kate’s adjusting to civilian life and her quest to eventually adopt Rex after he is retired. But Rex’s temperament will make this a challenge, although unsurprisingly, there is a happy ending.
The day-by-day grim realities of military service are not stinted on and are depicted matter-of-factly- at one point, Kate casually mentions the temperature: 120 degrees. After giving Kate and the others an alarming description of serving in Iraq will be like, a fellow soldier adds that he’s understating things. But “Megan Leavey” also does an excellent job of depicting the unbreakable bond that sometimes forms between a wary animal and their equally troubled caretaker. It beats “A Dog’s Purpose” earlier released this year paws down, too, as the canine survives – and the real life Rex and Megan had a successful post-military bond.