Megan Leavey

While it focuses primarily on the title character, Megan Leavey is more compelling when the cameras follow her four-legged sidekick.

Combining the violence of a contemporary war movie with the tender tale of the bond between a woman and her dog, the uneven narrative debut for director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) ultimately features more bark than bite.

It’s a straightforward story of true-life heroism that chronicles Megan (Kate Mara), who joins the Marines after Sept. 11, 2001, as a way to seek redemption from a troubled family life and failed relationships. After a montage whips her into shape, she finds her way to the K9 unit, with the goal of becoming a handler for a combat dog.

Eventually she’s allowed to train Rex, an aggressive German Shepherd with a nasty temper, yet the two seemed destined to be together. They’re deployed together to Iraq, where Rex sniffs out landmines and uses his instincts to potentially spare the lives of fellow soldiers.

After an explosion injures them both, they’re transported back home and become separated during their recovery, with a reunion facing plenty of medical hurdles and bureaucratic red tape.

The film provides details on a worthwhile military program, showcasing not only the role of canines on the front lines, but the behind-the-scenes interaction with their handlers. Dogs remain a valuable resource during wartime missions, where their loyalty and companionship could mean the difference between life and death.

Canine aficionados will appreciate that, and only the most cynical viewers won’t feel a sense of patriotic pride while seeing them in action. Indeed, Rex is the star of the show, with lingering trust and anger issues that are more difficult to dramatize, although Mara does more than just hold the leash as the resilient and tough-minded heroine.

However, while it smartly remains politically even-handed — except for the military gender politics that Megan is forced to navigate — the screenplay glosses over its character development, never sufficiently probing Megan’s inner turmoil. An intermittent romantic subplot feels distracting.

Megan Leavey is a heartfelt crowd-pleaser that feels too sanitized where it could have been grittier and edgier. And like its main character, the film just isn’t the same when Rex isn’t around.


Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.