What is a hero? Merriam-Webster defines it as: a) a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; b) an illustrious warrior; c) a person admired for achievements and noble qualities; and d) one who shows great courage. While everyone is focused on a fictional female superhero that can certainly be defined by both a and b definitions, we seem to sometimes forget about those noble heroes that highlight the c and d definitions. One such hero, Megan Leavey, isn’t all flash and brute force like one Diana Prince, but as a veteran of the armed forces who served in Iraq as a K9 handler, what she lacks in god-like powers, Megan makes up for in courage and fortitude.
Megan (Kate Mara) is an incredibly lonely person battling an undiagnosed bout of depression after her best friend dies in an accidental overdose. Even though we don’t ever get to meet this friend, Mara does a terrific job in conveying her love, grief and a sense of guilt over what happened in a very subtle but affecting way. Without him, Megan is a shell. She tries to move on, but everything in her life is stale and without meaning. Even though she lives with her mother (Edie Falco) and step-father (Will Patton), their relationship is also incredibly strained and they don’t know how to help. Megan just needs to escape everything, but can’t find a way to do that.
Until she walks past an army recruitment center, that is. Believing this could give her life a new purpose — a distraction from the pain and guilt — Megan doesn’t hesitate to become more than she has ever been. She isn’t the strongest, the tallest or the most fit, but she fights hard to get through her training. It’s clear something is still missing, though, and after running into some trouble during a night of drunk debauchery, Megan finds out what that something is. Megan doesn’t connect with a lot of people, but her need for companionship overwhelms her to the point of isolation. So when she is tasked to clean the kennels of the canine training facility, Megan quickly finds a companion she can connect with — Rex, a German shepherd bred to become a bomb-sniffing military dog.
On the surface, Rex is a dog with an attitude. A little mean, a bit controlling and somewhat distant. But deep down, there’s a loneliness Megan instantly connects to, and based on the bond between dog and handler on display by other soldiers, Megan feels compelled to do everything in her power to become part of the K9 unit. When she’s first transferred, her commanding officer (Common) doesn’t have a dog for her, so she’s given a metal box to train with. But when Rex bites his current handler in the hand during a routine medical training class, the two are paired together.
Watching the two form the bond that ultimately makes up the bulk of the story is terrific, but I don’t feel there was enough to justify the lengths Megan goes to adopt Rex in the latter half of the film. I understand the friendship that forms, and the strength of their bond, especially when both are injured by an IED, but in order to truly feel what the two felt for one another, we need to see that bond form from the beginning, and that is what was lacking. There’s a terrific scene when Megan first goes to introduce herself to Rex with a bowl of food. She tells him to go into his little house before she opens the cage door, but Rex refuses. The two stare each other down for what could be hours until Rex finally gives in and retreats to his home, at which point, Megan finally gives him his food. It’s a scene that invokes Megan’s command, but from there, her and Rex never seem to have any other issues over who is truly the alpha, so the evolution from that hierarchy into a genuine partnership is nearly non-existent.
Because of this, I never felt the strength of the bond as much as I thought I should. By the time Megan is honorably discharged and Rex is put back into the field with a new handler, I wanted to feel the pain and sense of loss that Megan must have been going through after once again having someone she loves pulled away from her. And though Mara again does a great job of showing us this turmoil, I didn’t quite connect with it, causing the lengths she goes to adopt Rex feel a little flat.
Part of the reason is the amount of time director Gabriela Cowperthwaite spends on a secondary relationship between Megan and Matt Morales (Ramon Rodriguez), her commanding officer in Iraq. This particular love story plays well into the message of the film, which is to say that both Rex and Megan were able to change one another for the better. And although the chemistry between Mara and Rodriguez is strong, I felt this distracted a little too much from Cowperthwaite’s true intention for the film.
Beyond the relationships that drive the story, I thought the war sequences were done well, with just enough action and intrigue to show off how important K9s are to the safety of both the military and Americans. As highlighted here, the K9 unit goes well beyond the simple ability to sniff out IEDs and large weapon caches. These four-legged heroes have a deeper sense of their surroundings, allowing them to sense danger humans can’t. In the most harrowing scene of the film, Megan and Rex are tasked with clearing an abandoned structure they believe was the epicenter of firing off an IED. When they find some equipment on one of the roofs, Rex starts barking hysterically at one of Megan’s fellow soldiers. It’s initially taken as a side effect to having been blown up only a few minutes before, but we soon find out it’s in reaction to terrorists waiting in the distance to launch a missile at the unsuspecting soldiers. Rex is able to pull the soldier from harm’s way prior to the attack, and then later run to protect Megan during the evacuation.
It was weird to see a couple of well-known actors (if not by name, then by face) pushed to the sidelines in pretty unsubstantial roles. Patton, who’s appeared in a lot of big-budget blockbusters, is given hardly anything to say or do but act like a clueless schmuck, and Bradley Whitford as Megan’s biological father is relegated to counselor, spouting fatherly advice when Megan needs it most. Both roles could have easily been played by unknowns without a second thought, so why these throw-away parts were given to such high-profile actors, I’m not sure. They were great, as always, it was just odd that their characters really didn’t have much meaning to the overall story. Then again, nothing could be weirder than trying to wrap my head around Tom Felton’s muddled English accent.
It’s not perfect, and I can’t say it’s as exciting or as well-put together as the other formidable heroine lighting up movie screens right now, but Megan Leavey is a quiet film that showcases the courage and bond that real soldiers share with their canine counterparts and how important they are to the success of the war against terror.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include Cars 3, Rough Night, All Eyez On Me and 47 Meters Down. If you would like to see a review for tone of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.