So once again we have survived.

SAN DIEGO EXCLUSIVE: Top Dog

sdcc tn_topdogIn the K-9 review I mentioned that it competed with TURNER & HOOCH for King of the Human/Dog Buddy Cop Movies. But TURNER & HOOCH takes place in the fictional northern California town of Cypress Beach, so who gives a shit? Nobody.

For the true San Diego/cop/dog experience outside of K-9 you gotta got to 1995’s TOP DOG, where Chuck Norris plays Lieutenant Jake Wilder, a San Diego police detective actually assigned a dog named Reno as his partner. I don’t know if this is K-9 fan fiction and the SDPD is supposed to be building off of the precedent of Jerry Lee, or if K-9 exists as a movie within this universe and it inspired them to do this for PR purposes. But the point is this is in the top two San Diego dog cop comedies of the 20th century. Just my two cents.

The filmatists seem to aim for the same basic approach as K-9 – jokes peppered through a serious action movie. The villains are white supremacists shown making hateful speeches (though thankfully light on racial slurs), they are mostly not played as bumbling buffoons. But there’s cheesy, happy music by George S. Clinton (MORTAL KOMBAT), the jokes are broader than K-9, the action is cornier and the look is shoddy. On the positive side there are more explosions, kicks and jumping stunts. All these things can be explained by who the director is: Chuck’s brother Aaron Norris (DELTA FORCE II).

When the movie begins, Reno is teamed with an old man (Carmine Caridi, GODFATHER II and III) who gets killed by the racists when he stumbles upon the weapons cache they’re planning to use to attack the upcoming Racial Unity Rally (which we later find out coincides with Hitler’s birthday!). Like a human cop, Reno gets shot and thrown in the water but is hard to kill so he washes up alive and ready to go find the fuckers who did this. Or at least be there when Wilder does.

mp_topdogWilder fits many of the tropes of low rent action heroes, including the one where he’s introduced waking up hungover in the afternoon with empty Bud Light cans and pizza boxes strewn around. The dog is shown to have many parallels to him, including an almost identical record of commendations and suspensions, and also the messiness. You could even argue that he has a beard like Chuck does, but at least Chuck keeps his clean. Reno’s beard is always slimy and gross. This is unprofessional, in my opinion. Benji or Lassie would never have a movie where they look like they need to be groomed.

But you know, Reno is a dog who plays by his own rules. A protective-suit-wearing cop says he’ll never work with him again after a training exercise. “That’s not how he was trained! He cheats!”

Reno even gets his own Just How Badass Is He? when his trainer (Michele Lamar Richards, Alien Nation, COSMIC SLOP) says, “Reno’s an exception. He’s been cross-trained to apply to find almost any known narcotic and explosive there is. He can disarm and take out an assailant quicker than either one of us. Do you think you can handle it?”

mp_topdogBReno also saves a baby from a fire in the opening scene. The firemen failed, the pooch achieved. And he has flashbacks. Like the dog in THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2.

So they do take this “he’s an action hero, but he’s a dog” thing admirably far, but then they sort of take the wind out of it by also trying to make him cute and having a sub-Jake-Lloyd mop-headed kid (Erik von Detten, the voice of Sid in TOY STORY, Wally in the LEAVE IT TO BEAVER movie) as his best friend or whatever.

This is a movie in a hurry to cut ties with reality. In the opening, an awkwardly voice-overed scene of white supremacists blowing up an apartment building in a black neighborhood dissolves into sprinkles pouring on donuts. The grandpa brings the dog and the grandson to Winchell’s, and the kid begs to feed a jelly donut to the dog.

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He gives his donut to the dog, is super psyched and then happily gets on his bike and does a huge BMX jump over a wall. What kind of a brain damaged kid goes to the donut shop just to give his donut to a dog? And who thinks that’s a good idea for the opening scene of a movie? “You know what, let’s do the opening credits over a montage of donuts. And then this is all leading up to a kid feeding a donut to a dog, because you know how kids love to not eat donuts but to feed donuts to dogs and then do a BMX trick and disappear.”

Later the kid’s idea of fun is to take Reno to watch a dog show and then have him try on different hats and sunglasses.

The story is credited to Aaron Norris and Tim Grayem (actor, “Bonehead” in HELLBOUND), screenplay by Ron Swanson (writer of OVERKILL starring Aaron Norris, not the beloved character from Parks & Recreation, although that’s who’s pictured on his IMDb page). I’m not gonna point any fingers at which writer I think it is who doesn’t understand how donuts work. There is no need for a witch hunt. Besides, if anyone is to be indicted for the opening of the movie it is the artistic criminal who chose the fucking font.

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Keep in mind this is a theatrical release. Chuck’s last theatrical release. I 100% blame the font for that.

Here’s a weird joke: at the beginning of the movie it’s established that Reno likes to chew on people’s scarves. Then at the very end, this hobby leads to a comedic assault on a religious leader.

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Everybody chases after him (the weirdo donut-hating kid is the only one who obviously thinks it’s funny) and the movie ends on a freeze frame of him running away with the scarf.

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For what it’s worth, Chuck does okay, playing his usual tough guy character exactly like he does in his other movies, even though he’s probly smart enough to know that he’s talking to a dog the whole time and it’s supposed to be funny. And I give the movie some credit for trying to be racially progressive in a genre that’s usually full of stereotypes. He even has an Asian chief (Clyde Kusatsu, PAPARAZZI).

And there are a couple of worthwhile action moments. There’s a scene where the racists ambush him with machine guns while wearing clown masks and one of the clowns runs out of the bushes and does a flip for no reason at all. And I like at the end of that sequence when a car crashes, explodes, flips, slides upside down and then instead of taking the time to walk around to the driver’s side Chuck chooses to kick it so it will spin around.

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Here’s a little side story for you. In 2004, THE LAST SAMURAI, MYSTIC RIVER, MASTER AND COMMANDER, THIRTEEN and CALENDAR GIRLS showed up illegally on the internet. For the first time Academy screeners that year had special markers on them, and the pirated versions of all of these were traced to screeners sent to Carmine Caridi, who had played Sergeant Grandpa Lou Swanson in TOP DOG. It turned out he had been sending his screener tapes to some guy in suburban Homewood, Illinois named Russell Sprague, who copied 134 of them to DVD and distributed them. He was extradited to L.A. and pleaded guilty to one count of copyright infringement, but died of an apparent heart attack in his jail cell while awaiting sentencing. Caridi claimed not to know Sprague was pirating the movies, but was not supposed to let them leave his house, so he became the first person expelled from the Academy for piracy.

My point is it’s not his fault that FURY ROAD didn’t win. He couldn’t vote.

Anyway, while you’re in San Diego you could check out Balboa Park, the historic site of the Racial Unity Rally climax of TOP DOG. It was a big deal because it was the first time the city had let a movie film there since 1941 (year, not movie).

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The extravagant architecture and statuary on the belltower and bridges make a unique backdrop for the action finale – a big shootout and bomb disarming sequence that usually would be in a generic warehouse, quarry or shipyard. Sadly, Reno only knocks one guy off a ledge…

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…and then barks at a guy at the end. It’s mostly the humans who do the work.

Still, it looks like a really impressive park on its own, made much more historically and culturally important by being the TOP DOG filming location. Here are directions for how to get there from the convention center. Have a great time everybody!

P.S. The movie that filmed at that park before TOP DOG was CITIZEN KANE, which used it for the exteriors of Xanadu. I don’t know why I bring that up though, that’s not really relevant to the TOP DOG filming locations tour you’re planning. T.M.I. I guess sorry about that

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Friday, July 22nd, 2016 at 10:58 am and is filed under Action, Comedy/Laffs, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

8 Responses to “SAN DIEGO EXCLUSIVE: Top Dog”

  1. Yeah even though it’s the lesser of the rogue cop/lovable police dog pictures of the time it did have some decent action and I liked that Chuck played it as a straight as possible but it was still not as charming as he did with the metaness in SIDEKICKS. Another plus is that his hairpiece was really on point. At the time Chuck’s wigmaster was coming up short most times which is probably why he wore a hat so much on WALKER. For the most part though it fails big time mostly cause the comedy is so damn shitty. Like even COP AND A HALF was much funnier. TURNER & HOOCH and K-9 never had that problem. They contain a crapload of chuckle worthy scenarios. With that said my mind was blown that this was another cop dog joint set in San Diego. It’s been a very long time since I last saw it but I remember it taking place in Arizona or something for some reason.

  2. I think the dog likes donuts because he is a cop.

  3. I think they reviewed this for the How Did This Get Made podcast.

  4. Henry Swanson's my name

    July 22nd, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    Ahhh yes, Aaron Norris. One of the worst action directors of all time.

  5. A few things. One, Balboa Park is awesome and should be visited. I used to live near it and have been there several times.

    Two, what the hell kind of dog is that? I’m no expert, but I can’t imagine a shaggy dog as a good police dog. But maybe I’m a dogist asshole profiling what kind of dog should or shouldn’t be a cop.

    And lastly, someone needs to pinch everyone involved with that movie for the donut/bmx opening.

  6. “This is a movie in a hurry to cut ties with reality.”

    My kind of movie!

    Also, if you guys were wondering where the hell that hand-painted TOP DOG poster came from, check this out. Pleasingly, that poster is the second one displayed, right after the one shown below:

    The Lost Art of the Ghana Movie Poster

    While the Hollywood movie industry is famous for spending literal fortunes on their film fare and its subsequent promotion, not everyone has the means to p

  7. I saw this movie in theaters because I worked at the theater and I mistakenly thought it would be a real movie. I recall it missing sound effects in a few shots and other technical errors like actors missing their mark (like the infamous Grease scene where she misses the light switch but the lights turn on anyway. I forget the Top Dog equivalent.)

    So yeah, hate criminals in a kids movie.

    I also remember no one was going to see this movie. Like I think single digit ticket sales for every show. Then one day it rained and one showing actually sold 75 tickets.

  8. Haven’t seen the film (though it would have to be better than my memories of K-9), but just wanted to commend the truly outstanding poster art linked above!

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