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"You asked if I struggle with anger. I don't. I let anger win a long time ago."
Having seen disgraced LAPD officer Jake Rosser (Aaron Eckhart) in action, you would be hard-pressed to disagree with him. In the first scene of "Muzzle," directed by John Stalberg Jr. and co-written by Stalberg and Carlyle Eubank, Jake cruises through the Los Angeles streets, past tent cities crowding every sidewalk. Jake is part of the K-9 unit and chats with his dog, Ace, as he drives, complaining about the state of the world. Jake is one of those people who gripes about how "literally" no longer means "literally," and he has no idea he's not being profound or original. He's boring. "Muzzle" is filled with intriguing aspects not explored meaningfully. There are so many different threads, themes, and plots, even Scotch-taped together in the hopes it will come together. It doesn't.
Jake is a combat veteran with PTSD and lives a narrow, antisocial life. People give him a wide berth. In a call gone wrong, Ace dies in a shootout. When an unfortunate paramedic tells the panicked Jake the dog will have to wait until he finishes with the injured human, Jake attacks the paramedic. The altercation is caught by passersby on cellphone videos, and Jake wakes up famous for all the wrong reasons. He's suspended from his job and forced to see a therapist.
"Muzzle" is a thriller, in a way, but it's also a character study, in a way, as well as a look, in a way, at the relationship between police officers and their canines. Mourning for Ace, Jake decides to go after the people behind the incident (in which multiple police officers were killed, a car was blown up, and fentanyl canisters were found in the rubble). In his pursuit, Jake trips over an underworld of shady characters, trafficked dogs, and businesses acting as fronts for fentanyl production. Jake's new canine partner is a cutie named Socks, who is traumatized by her past treatment. She crouches in her cage, muzzle over her mouth. Jake and Socks are the same. In a way.
There are thrilling moments as Jake tracks down the shady characters and touching moments when Socks opens up to Jake. There are scenes of Jake and Socks in K-9 training, which are the best moments in "Muzzle." This is well-tread ground in film (see: "Turner & Hooch," among others), but the under-seen and excellent "Megan Leavey" is the most in-depth portrayal of this human-canine working relationship. "Megan Leavey" successfully does what "Muzzle" tries to do: portray the journey of a cold and/or damaged human having to open up in new ways to properly care for and train their canine partner. You can't be cold, mean, or frustrated when training a dog. You must deal with your issues before picking up the dog leash. "Muzzle" attempts to make those connections in a rote, obedient way.
The handling of a love interest relationship indicates all the problems at work in "Muzzle." Jake, glowering and grumpy (not to mention notorious because he's seen assaulting a first responder on every news channel), meets a random woman (Penelope Mitchell) in the laundry room in his building. He is taciturn to the point of unfriendliness. Yet, despite being a nurse with a supposedly busy career, she's intrigued by this thundercloud of a man and knocks on his door later, telling him if he ever needs to talk, she's available. She oozes sympathy and concern for this total stranger who has already shown his capacity for being frightening and violent. It makes no sense. She shows up randomly, leaves the plot for a long period (the movie doesn't even miss her), and then strolls back into sight at the end. No work has been done to give her any substance or even reason for being.
The thriller aspect of "Muzzle" fares a little bit better, although the villains are cartoonish, and one of them saunters out of the shadows wearing shiny pants and dramatic makeup, looking like Ursa in "Superman." It's obvious we're supposed to feel Jake softening through his relationship with Socks (and with the nurse, even though we rarely see her, and she has no personality beyond "Let me be caring towards this scary-looking man"), but his journey isn't committed to in a meaningful way. Socks is the most expressive character in the movie. She's the only one who goes on a real journey of development and healing.
Now playing in theaters and available on digital platforms.
Aaron Eckhart as Jake Rosser
Stephen Lang as Leland
Diego Tinoco as Hernandez
Leslie Black as Councilwoman Pricilla Cross
Penelope Mitchell as Mia
Nick Searcy as Captain Freeman
Grainger Hines as Aldo Damon
Luis Chávez as Aojo
Delissa Reynolds as Det. Ramos