Despite advances in technology that provide an array of sophisticated devices, dogs are still considered vital for many policing or military operations. Their remarkable sense of smell has proven invaluable on the front line, whether it’s tracking suspects across great distances, sniffing for explosives or locating hidden contraband, they are routinely deployed - often exposed to the same deadly risks as their handlers. The exceptional bond that is formed between these heroic canines and their handler forms the basis of Rex, an uplifting true story directed by the talented Gabriela Cowperthwaite – best known for her searing documentary Blackfish, which tackled the controversy over killer whales held in captivity.
Rex begins during 2001 as aimless young Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) is fired from her dead-end job in Valley Cottage, New York. Leavey’s relationship with her mother Jackie (Edie Falco) is strained at best and, just to make matters worse, her closest friend has recently died following a tragic accident. Such a turbulent home life provides the impetus for Leavey to take flight, and passing by a marine recruitment office she doesn’t hesitate to enlist.
The budding recruit is soon being put through her paces at Boot Camp on Parris Island, South Carolina, where we are treated to a brisk yet very familiar training montage. This comes complete with the obligatory bellowing drill instructor, so memorably brought to life in past classics by the likes of Lou Gossett Jr. and R. Lee Ermey - but look fast this time for a fleeting cameo from the real-life Megan Leavey as one of the trainers. Following graduation, it is then onto Camp Pendleton, San Diego, where the eager Private First Corporal awaits her first mission.
Alas some foolhardy behaviour on the base leads to a disciplinary, and the resulting punishment finds PFC Leavey on “EMI duties” – or quite literally in the dog house, saddled with an unenviable task of cleaning floors in the K-9 unit. It is here that she comes face to face with Rex, a particularly ferocious German shepherd – and you really wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of his snarling set of teeth. That familiar adage “bark is worse than his bite” evidently doesn’t apply to Rex – those mighty jaws have already left his previous handler with a severe injury. Overlooking such apparent anger management issues, fearless Leavey aims to make a connection with Rex and is suddenly determined to join the K-9 Unit. First though she must convince her commanding Officers, particularly doubting Gunny Martin (played by rapper Common), that she has the confidence to control the dog and become an effective handler. Luckily veteran Sgt. Dean – nicely played by Tom Felton - is on hand to offer words of wisdom.
The bonding between Leavey and Rex is strengthened during their deployment to Camp Ramadi, in war torn Iraq. The canine’s brilliant detection skills are quickly put to good use, sweeping houses and roadways, sniffing out concealed weapons or lethal IEDs. Fellow marine Morales (Ramon Rodriguez) chillingly warns that the Iraqis don’t like dogs or their handlers and will seek them out as a target. We really feel the tension in these skilfully directed scenes, as vehicles are inspected at check points and bombed out buildings carefully examined. There may have been countless films before that have thrust us deep into a war zone, but the narrative here manages to take a fresh new direction. Leavey shows compassion towards the dog’s needs, especially given the challenging environment, and there is never any doubt that Rex wouldn’t think twice about saving her life in return. When the unit comes under heavy fire, Cowperthwaite delivers a truly nerve-shredding sequence – and you can clearly see what is happening for once, as those shaky cam moves are kept to a minimum. The tone is consistently well-judged: gritty enough to stay true to the story, while eschewing a need to show the more graphic images of war.
The efficient screenplay (credited to Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo & Tim Lovestedt) covers considerable ground in less than two hours, but never allows the pace to flag. The only misstep is an unnecessary romantic sub-plot between Leavey and a fellow marine. Leavey and Rex did in fact save countless lives over the course of several years – condensed here into only a small segment of the film, until a huge blast from a deeply buried IED seriously injured them both. Back home Leavey suffers from PTSD and is devastated at being separated from her companion. This prompts her to get drawn into a very different kind of conflict, this time against the military, campaigning to bring her war hero home. You might be forgiven for thinking, given the subject matter, that this could all become unbearably mawkish. Thankfully it does not, Cowperthwaite draws on her documentary making background to tell the story simply and without pulling too aggressively on the heartstrings. Mara is wonderful too in the lead, never overplaying the part, making her character both warm and real. In a time when the film industry is under pressure to improve diversity, it’s a shame that this compelling drama – featuring a wealth of female talent both in front and behind the camera - has been given such a low-key UK release, but it's definitely worth seeking out.
The film was released theatrically in the US during the summer of 2017 under it's original title of Megan Leavey, receiving very favourable reviews. In Germany it underwent a title change to become Sgt. Rex for a premiere on home formats. When Lionsgate acquired the film for UK distribution, the title was tweaked again, this time becoming simply Rex. Regrettably it has bypassed UK cinemas and not even been given a Blu-ray release, instead going straight to DVD and download. Lets just hope the film doesn't languish on the bargain shelf alongside the latest cheapjack nonsense from Steven Seagal, as it doesn't deserve such a fate.
The DVD is presented in the original aspect of 2.35:1. Filmed using modern Arri Alexa digital cameras the image is, as you might expect, clean and sharp. The location work in Spain (standing in for Iraq) is shown off to good effect.
The audio option available is Dolby 5.1, offering a dynamic mix and is particularly effective during the battle scenes - some moments are guaranteed to give you a jolt. Crucially the dialogue is clear throughout.
Subtitles have also been included.
Additional material for this release is minimal, with only one very brief EPK featurette: Love & War: Behind The Scenes (2:23).
Rex is available from Lionsgate to download or to purchase on DVD from 19th March 2018.