I have no idea what possessed Chuck Norris to do a dog-cop comedy; yes, it’s directed by his younger brother, Aaron, but Aaron Norris also directed Chuck in some action films that, if not necessarily good, were at least more in line with what we expect from Chuck Norris. But for some reason during the mid-90s every action movie actor had to do at least a couple comedies based on thin premises. I had no expectation of this movie being good; in fact, I’ve decided that since I tend to check these things out periodically, I should start another category just for movies that I go into with the expectation that they’ll be terrible. Most of the time when I see a movie, I have neutral or positive expectations. And I know, intellectually, that if I’m watching something, expecting it to be bad, I’ll probably notice flaws in it more easily than I would otherwise. So in the interest of honesty, if not necessarily fairness, I’m re-classifying such reviews under “The Morbid Curiosity Files”. (This doesn’t mean they’ll always actually turn out bad, and certainly doesn’t mean films not classified there will always be good. It’s just a question of what expectations I have going in; surprises, pleasant and otherwise, are always possible.)
In the case of Top Dog, pleasant surprises were not forthcoming.
I’ve criticized a Chuck Norris movie. I should update my will.
Chuck Norris plays Lt. Jake Wilder, a San Diego police officer who has been suspended multiple times for not playing by the rules. (You knew that part was coming. Chuck Norris isn’t going to play a police officer who plays by the rules.) He gets called off of suspension by his Captain (Clyde Kusatsu) in order to solve the murder of police officer Lou Swanson (Carmine Caridi), who was shot in the line of duty while investigating a lead on a fire-bombing. To help with the investigation, he’s been assigned a new partner, Lou’s partner; unfortunately for Wilder, Lou was part of the canine unit, and his new partner is Reno, a shaggy dog with a penchant for jelly doughnuts, grabbing scarves and causing mischief.
Right away the film has some serious problems with its tone. There’s not exactly a mystery to the death of Sgt. Swanson, since the audience spends the first ten minutes with Lou in order to set up the plot. Lou’s investigation leads him to a ship loaded with C4 and weapons, as a group of white supremacists (the leader played by Peter Savard Moore) plot a campaign of terror; getting caught during the investigation is what causes his death. There aren’t lot of genres in which your movie can start off with “grandfatherly police sergeant with dog gets murdered by terrorist white supremacists”, and “family comedy” is not one of them. It’s an uncomfortable subject to try and build laughs around, and since it’s driving the main plot, it brings the whole thing down. Further awkwardness comes up with Wilder getting a significant clue from his mother; having figured out white supremacists are behind the whole thing and planning something, he needs to know when and where. His mother (Herta Ware), casually planting in the garden, points out the next day is Hitler’s birthday, as if it were just every day knowledge (after mentioning he was an artist as well). A little reference to her being a history teacher or something like that would have helped here… as it is, we’re just left with Wilder’s mother strangely being a font of Hitler trivia. Again, it’s just kind of uncomfortable for a family comedy.
Seriously, why does this little old lady have Hitler’s birthday fresh in her mind?
And it is trying to be a family comedy. Erik von Detten — the voice of Sid in the Toy Story movies — gets his screen debut here as Matthew, Lou’s grandson. He serves no purpose in the film except to add a heartwarming family touch to the film, and to take Reno to a dog show. Why you’d take a police dog to a dog show is uncertain, and it has nothing to do with the plot, it’s just there to add hijinks. (If those hijinks had actually been funny, I might not have minded so much, but very little of the comedy in this film was worth more than a smile. I did laugh at the very last joke in the film, though.) Similarly superfluous is the character of Detective Boyette (Michele Lamar Richards), apparently Reno’s trainer between Lou and Jake (it’s never quite made clear). In some films, she’d be a love interest, or just a source for snarky comments at Jake’s expense. Here… she does nothing. She’s on screen quite a bit, but there doesn’t seem to be a point to any of it, as if the writers knew they had to include a female lead but didn’t know what one was for.
The writing is just lacking all around in this film. The comedy isn’t funny, the characters aren’t interesting, and there’s only a little bit of Chuck Norris kicking ass (which, after all, is the draw of a Chuck Norris film). The whole thing manages to be dull and the only parts that aren’t forgettable are just bad. I’m not convinced that Chuck Norris can’t do comedy if he really wants to… but this movie doesn’t present a good supporting argument.