Top Dog (1995) Live Entertainment/Action-Comedy RT: 86 minutes Rated PG-13 (shootings and martial arts violence) Director: Aaron Norris Screenplay: Ron Swanson Music: George S. Clinton Cinematography: Joao Fernandes Release date: April 28, 1995 (US) Cast: Chuck Norris, Michele Lamar Richards, Erik von Detten, Carmine Caridi, Clyde Kusatsu, Kai Wulff, Peter Savard Moore, Timothy Bottoms, Francesco Quinn, Herta Ware. Box Office: $5.1 Million (US)
What I remember most about the Chuck Norris action-comedy Top Dog is that it opened just nine days after the Oklahoma City bombing (April 19, 1995). In an eerie parallel that the makers could not have foreseen, the movie opens with a building being blown up by members of a racist hate group. Bad timing to be sure, but that’s not the only reason audiences stayed away from Top Dog. It’s a weird movie on many levels, not the least of which is the casting of Norris in a comedic role. He’s an actor of limited range. When it comes to kicking ass, he’s your man! Norris is a bona fide tough guy. I’ve liked several of his movies. However, he’s not a natural comedian. Much of his dialogue in Top Dog sounds forced rather than funny. He doesn’t have a light touch when it comes to acting. Some would even argue that he’s barely an actor. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but he does tend to be wooden a lot of the time. But he isn’t the only problem with Top Dog. Some of the blame goes to the director, younger brother Aaron Norris (Braddock: Missing in Action III). This movie is wildly uneven. It was marketed as a family-friendly PG-13 action-comedy about a cop and a dog a la K-9 and Turner & Hooch, but the bad guys are white supremacists. The two things don’t really go together, do they?
A clue at the bombing site leads veteran police officer Lou Swanson (Caridi, The Money Pit) and his canine partner Reno to a ship containing military explosive material. They’re discovered and shot by main villain Otto Dietrich (Wulff, Three Amigos). Maverick cop Jake Wilder (Norris), currently on suspension from the force, is reinstated to investigate the case. The captain (Kusatsu, All in the Family) orders the lone wolf to work with a partner, the dog Reno. Despite proving that he’s more than capable, Jake doesn’t want to work with a dog. Along the way, Jake and his four-legged partner develop a mutual respect for each other. Their investigation uncovers a plot to attack the upcoming Coalition for Racial Unity which, for some reason, is scheduled to take place on April 20, the birth date of Adolf Hitler. How did the planners miss this? It certainly didn’t elude the neo-Nazis that planned it.
Although the screenplay treats it as a surprise, it’s a no-brainer that the attack will take place at the aforementioned coalition. How is it possible that the police, working with the FBI, didn’t figure it out sooner? Are they all really that inept or is it just bad screenwriting? It’s just one of many plot holes in Top Dog. Here’s another. While Norris attempts to defuse a bomb (replete with red digital read-out counting down) under a limo, his captain is sitting right there giving him instructions. Shouldn’t he be a safe distance away communicating via walkie-talkie? What happens if the bomb goes KABOOM? They both die. Top Dog is a bad movie, no two ways about it. Norris (in his last theatrical film until The Expendables 2) is easily outacted by his canine co-star. The tone is schizophrenic. It doesn’t know what it wants to be and subsequently fails as both a comedy and an actioner. Take the scene where masked gunmen shoot at Jake’s house. It plays like a routine action scene with Norris easily beating the snot out of all them. But they’re wearing clown masks! The scene ends with him saying, “You’re under arrest, bozo.” How are we supposed to take this scene? As if the movie wasn’t confused enough, the writers throw in a kid (von Detten, The Princess Diaries) for an extra measure of cuteness. He’s the dead cop’s grandson meaning there’s at least one scene of Norris comforting the grieving lad.
Top Dog might have worked better had the writers made the bad guys drug dealers. While still not exactly kiddie material, it’s a far cry from racists. At least it’s easier for parents to explain drugs to their children than white supremacists. To be fair, the dog is funny. As a dog owner, I find them funny. Reno has an affinity for red scarves, something to keep in mind at the end with the Pope and his red scarf. Otherwise, we’re talking about a dog of a movie here. It’s badly written and poorly made. At the end, during the climactic showdown/chase between Norris and the bad guys, the scene keeps cutting to the kid racing to the scene on his bike. What exactly does he plan to do when he gets there? And isn’t it a neat coincidence that the boy arrives just in time to hear the villain admit to killing his grandfather? And what’s going with the female cop (Richards, The Bodyguard)? Is there supposed to be a romance developing between her and Jake? That part of the movie is vague and way underdeveloped. To be honest, for all its flaws, I kind of like Top Dog. It made me laugh, for the wrong reasons sometimes, but it’s better than no laughter at all.