Full disclaimer: never heard of Megan Leavey before this movie.
Before seeing it, I thought it looked pretty solid. A war drama featuring a female protagonist. That’s pretty infrequent, and focused on an interesting topic: Marine canine handlers and the relationships forged in the service. Well, being a dog lover myself, I couldn’t help but get myself pretty excited for this movie. It looked good, it looked like it had some emotional weight to it and some great acting, yeah, I was ready.
Let’s take a gander at the on-screen talent. Starring, we have the under-appreciated, but uber talented Kate Mara (MORGAN , THE MARTIAN , and ZOOM ). This poor girl. She’s barely ever been given a chance to properly shine, hasn’t she? In the movies where she’s kind of the focus, it’s not a good film (CAPTIVE  and FANT4STIC ), or if she’s in a good movie, she’s usually delegated to a supporting role (THE MARTIAN or 127 HOURS ). This is always a shame because she can be legit great, so it made me pretty happy to see her showing off those acting chops. In support, we have Common (JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 , BARBERSHOP: THE NEXT CUT , AMERICAN GANGSTER , and Pixar’s upcoming COCO ), Tom Felton (A UNITED KINGDOM , RISEN , and TV show THE FLASH), Ramon Rodriguez (NEED FOR SPEED , TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN , and TV show IRON FIST), Edie Falco (THE COMEDIAN , THE QUIET , and TV show NURSE JACKIE), and Bradley Whitford (GET OUT , SAVING MR. BANKS , THE CABIN IN THE WOODS , and the upcoming GODZILLA: KING OF MONSTERS ).
Now for behind the scenes. Directing is Gabriela Cowperthwaite, known for the documentary BLACKFISH. Oh wow, three total writers: Pamela Gray (CONVICTION  and A WALK ON THE MOON ), Annie Mumolo (BRIDESMAIDS ), and Tim Lovestedt, making his feature-film debut. Congrats, sir. Composing the score is Mark Isham, known for THE ACCOUNTANT (2016), THE MIST (2007), and BLADE (1998). Finally, the cinematographer is Lorenzo Senatore, known for RISEN, THE FOURTH KIND (2009), and STARSHIP TROOPERS 3: MARAUDER (2008).
I was pretty interested in this film and went in with some fairly high expectations and was pretty excited.
Based on true events between 2003 and 2012. Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) was a directionless young woman who made one bad choice after another. Deciding to try something that will get her far away from her current life, she joins the Marines. But old habits die hard as some drunken antics land her some unsavory responsibilities around her base, specifically cleaning the canine pens. While there, she gets inspired to work with the working military dogs and through hard work, gets paired with the most aggressive of their dogs, Rex, a German Shepard. Though the relationship is rocky, the two eventually bond, climbing the ranks, and served in two deployments in Iraq. The story follows their exploits in the service and Megan’s eventual struggle to adopt him.
Wow. I mean, wow. Yes, yes, and a thousand kinds of yes. This movie is fantastic.
Honestly, from the opening, I wouldn’t have guessed how great this movie is because it’s the fourth out of five films I saw (so far) this week that have started with an annoying opening narration that really didn’t need to be there. Not to mention, though I didn’t know this at the time, the movie is practically three movies shoved into one. Any cynic would say that, on paper, this shouldn’t work. And yet, it works beautifully.
Ugh, my mind is racing with things to talk about. I don’t know where to start.
The mood starts off perfectly and you get why this young woman with no drive would randomly join the Marine Corps. Even once Megan arrives at boot camp, the movie wisely strays from certain clichés that these movies are known for. You know, the drill sergeant singling her out for no reason, she being either the best or worst in her class, alienated by her fellow recruits, or somehow making waves during training. Don’t get me wrong, some films do this exceptionally well, like FULL METAL JACKET (1987) and HACKSAW RIDGE (2016), but it’s nice to see a movie where they don’t try to squeeze that into this part of the story where it’d just leave you comparing it to another movie. Megan struggles, but she’s not the worst or the best. She’s just another recruit and passes through hard work.
Naturally, she screws up again despite her achievements and this is where the movie really starts. Rex is the most aggressive military dog that the base has and not many handlers seem to be able to handle him well. Hell, the only person we see handling him ends up getting bit by Rex and his arm getting broken. First of all, I shouldn’t be surprised that a dog’s bite can be powerful enough to break a human bone, but usually in movies featuring dog attacks, they either leave a nasty bite mark, or its victims get mauled to death. I don’t often see movies do something in the middle by way of dog-related injuries, but that’s all beside the point. I found it interesting that Megan didn’t actually want to train with Rex at first. She only got saddled with him because he was the only available canine to train with. I especially enjoyed their bonding scene where she refuses to give him food until he obeys one command from her, to which he does eventually. I like how when they’re flying to Iraq for the first time that Rex barks a lot because he doesn’t like flying. The only way he calms down is when Megan sleeps with him in his cage. It’s these bonding moments that feel so authentic and really get you invested in their relationship.
But what about the actual war stuff? Well, don’t expect giant battles that shape the face of war, but anything taking place overseas is done extremely well. You get a few scenes with Megan and Rex doing their job of sniffing out bombs and such and they’re always suspenseful. They sniff out a civilian car driven by a man and his young son, who asks what Rex’s name is. Out of pity, Megan tells the kid, but she gets in trouble and learns the dangerous subtleties of what you can and can’t do as a soldier in Iraq.
There’s another scene where they’re in a man’s home who seems benign enough, but as Rex sniffs for any weapons, I’m sitting in my seat rather uneasy and wondering if Rex was about to find anything. As soon as that mutt sits down to indicate that he did, the characters open a wall and find a shit-load of firearms and have the man arrested. This scene is especially triumphant because when a character tells Megan, “You just saved hundreds of lives,” you can easily believe it. Look at all those rifles and all those bullets! Those were about to get into the hands of terrorists or insurgents who would seek to kill foreign soldiers or innocent lives. Typically, that line is reserved for someone who stopped the big bad head-honcho, but anyone could easily argue that if you got rid of one guy, he’d just be replaced by another ambitious asshole and who knows what kind of damage this new guy could inflict. This movie showcases the bad guys getting stopped from providing weaponry for their own little army. While the scene is only a one-off and doesn’t tie in much to the rest of the story, it’s still repurposing a line that lesser action movies overuse and makes it both practical and rewarding for the audience, but sheds light on just what kind of heroes we have overseas, both on two or four legs, and illustrates just how far Megan’s come since her lower than low lifestyle and attitude she had just a couple years prior.
So before anyone asks, yes, this is an emotional movie. Get tissues ready. But I think the hidden brilliance is in that it doesn’t feel exploitative. Their relationship is built up through the course of the movie and that choking-up feeling was well justified. So when Rex is relieved of his duties when he develops facial palsy and Megan learns that he’ll eventually be put down, her struggles to adopt him and succeeding feel all the more rewarding by the end. And yes, Rex dies, but it’s not something the audience sees. Rex didn’t die in combat and it doesn’t go all MARLEY & ME (2008) and you have watch the poor thing die. It’s mentioned before the credits in a post-movie real-footage text. I don’t consider this a spoiler because this was a real-world event that you can look up online before seeing the movie. The point of the movie is building up on this relationship, both their professionalism and love for each other, as well as providing an intriguing insight into a subject that isn’t often tackled in film, as well as the added bonus of it being a female-lead war film. That’s rare.
There may be a could issues that I have sprinkled around here and there. I mentioned an the opening narration, which was a legit eye-twitch for me. There’s also a weirdly stupid scene where Megan’s hooked up with another soldier and while she’s saying how she’s not going to reenlist, he is and leaving in just couple of days, to which she gets upset at him, despite a conversation about neither wanting the relationship to be too serious. That sure was out of left field. And maybe I’d like some more screen time with Felton, who seemed like he was playing a pretty pivotal character who had a lot of influence and inspiration toward Megan, but these are pretty small nitpicks that don’t take up much screen time and some of them aren’t even the focus of the movie, so I let them slide.
Overall, it’s a unique story that’s not often tackled, if ever. It’s rich with emotion and investment. Mara carries this movie like a champion, arguably making this her best role that will hopefully lead to equally great roles in the future. Despite having three writers and a director only known for documentaries, this is certainly an impressive first for everyone involved. If I had a shot of tequila, I’d drink to their future successes. This is definitely a must-see film and I thoroughly love it and can’t wait to own it on Blu-Ray. Don’t miss out.
My honest rating for MEGAN LEAVEY: 5/5