Review: ‘Top Dog’

Talk about bad timing: Less than two weeks after the tragedy in Oklahoma City , here comes "Tog Dog," a lightweight action-comedy in which Oklahoma native Chuck Norris battles right-wing extremists who plant bombs in public buildings as part of their campaign of terror.

Talk about bad timing: Less than two weeks after the tragedy in Oklahoma City , here comes “Tog Dog,” a lightweight action-comedy in which Oklahoma native Chuck Norris battles right-wing extremists who plant bombs in public buildings as part of their campaign of terror.

Pic is aimed squarely at the family audience that made Norris’ “Sidekicks” a hit. But the plot’s unfortunate echoes of recent real-life events — which almost certainly will receive considerable media attention — may be a major B.O. turnoff. This “Dog” probably won’t have its day with audiences until its video release.

In the opening seconds, a massive explosion rocks a San Diego public-housing project. This attracts the interest of veteran cop Lou Swanson (Carmine Caridi), who’s promptly killed while examining a ship where the extremists store explosives and weaponry. This in turn attracts the interest of Jake Wilder (Norris), a maverick cop who just happens to be a longtime friend of the deceased.

The gimmick is, Wilder must team with Swanson’s partner, a shaggy K-9 cop named Reno, to locate the radicals. This leads to a great deal of man-and-dog bantering, some of which may amuse kids. That Norris’ character actively dislikes having any sort of partner, human or canine, is intended as part of the joke. It is good for, maybe, two or three laughs.

Even under the best of circum-stances, director Aaron Norris would have had a hard time making the funny bits mesh with the relatively serious terrorist-bombing plot. The extremists are white supremacists — including members of Aryan Nation, the Ku Klux Klan and other groups — led by a ranting, German-accented radical (Kai Wulff), and they don’t seem funny at all. They are saving their biggest blast for April 20, Adolf Hitler’s birthday. Unfortunately, that’s the very day that San Diego is hosting an international conference on racial equality.

Even more unfortunately, anyone who has read a newspaper or listened to a newscast in recent days knows what really happened in Oklahoma City on April 19. This knowledge casts a dark and discomforting shadow over the melodramatic contrivances of Ron Swanson’s workmanlike script.

It’s monumentally unfair, of course, to criticize “Top Dog” for its slight but chilling similarities to events that the filmmakers could not have predicted. But, then again, life isn’t fair. In 1970, “Getting Straight” was released just a few days after the Kent State killings, and wound up being blasted for its comedic depiction of college-campus protests. “Top Dog” likely won’t generate the same level of censure, but it probably will suffer for its unwitting topicality.

Taken on its own merits, pic is a routine but diverting programmer. It isn’t as engaging as “Sidekicks,” but it, too, eschews gratuitous violence. The shootouts are relatively bloodless, and even the fight scenes are toned down for a PG-13 rating. At 85 minutes, however, “Top Dog” seems padded. It might have worked better as an episode of Norris’ “Walker, Texas Ranger” series.

Norris doesn’t appear altogether at ease while playing opposite his canine co-star, but that actually serves to make the relationship funnier than it might otherwise have been. Reno, a pure-bred herding dog trained by Boone Narr, is every bit the scene-stealer he has to be.

Human co-stars of note include Clyde Kusatsu as Norris’ politically ambitious commander and Michele Lamar Richards as a K-9 cop squad trainer. A nice touch: In his battle against racist bad guys, the white-bread Norris has an Asian man and a black woman as his chief allies.

Tech credits are average.

Top Dog


An MGM/UA release of a Live Entertainment presentation of a Tanglewood Entertainment Group production. Produced by Andy Howard. Executive producers, Tom Steinmetz, Seth Willenson. Directed by Aaron Norris. Screenplay, Ron Swanson.


Camera (Foto-Kem color), Joao Fernandes; production designer, Norm Baron; editor, Peter Schink; sound (Dolby), Jim Thornton; costumes, Vernika Flower-Crow; assistant director, Leo Zisman. Reviewed on videocassette, Houston, April 25, 1995. MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 85 min.


Jake Wilder - Chuck Norris
Capt. Callahan - Clyde Kusatsu
Savannah Boyette - Michele Lamar Richards
Karl Koller - Peter Savard Moore
Matthew Swanson - Erik von Detten
Lou Swanson - Carmine Caridi
Jake's Mother - Herta Ware
Otto Dietrich - Kai Wulff
Mark Curtains - Francesco Quinn
Nelson Houseman - Timothy Bottoms

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