When I heard that Chuck Norris had made a movie about a loose-cannon cop who gets partnered with a dog, I thought: Well, sure. They made a lot of cheesy movies like that in the 1980s. Then I found out that this one was made in 1995. Then I just felt sad. In the ’80s, that kind of thing was funny. After that, it was desperate.
“Top Dog” must have been meant for children, insofar as it’s simple-minded and has a dog in it, although I guess that also applies to “Cujo.” In the scene in “Top Dog” where some bad guys open fire on a cop’s house, the bad guys are wearing clown masks and there’s a jaunty, merry tune playing on the soundtrack, lest the kiddies be too traumatized. That’s not to mention all the hilarious things the dog does, like cover his face with his paws when Chuck Norris makes a dumb joke. So, yes, definitely a kids’ movie.
Then again, the movie starts with villains shooting a kindly old man and his dog, and the main story has to do with white supremacists planning a terrorist attack. That doesn’t sound like a movie for kids at all! So maybe it is actually a movie for adults, but only adults who are very easily entertained, or who have suffered brain injuries. You’d think there would be enough people fitting that description for Top Dog to have been a blockbuster, but it only made $5 million.
The title character is a large, friendly, and very shaggy dog named Reno. His handler is a veteran San Diego police detective, Lou Swanson (Carmine Caridi), who gets murdered while investigating an arson. The villains shoot Reno, too, but he survives. We’re told that Reno has been shot five times in the line of duty, which, I’m sorry, just sounds irresponsible. Not to detract from the bravery of our men and women and dogs in uniform, but if you’ve been shot on five separate occasions, I have to think the problem is you.
With Swanson dead, Reno is paired up with Jake Wilder (Chuck Norris), a lone-wolf cop who doesn’t like having partners. The bosses say they chose Jake because he too has been shot five times in the line of duty — which, again, seems like a bad idea, because now you’ve got TWO cops who are always getting shot, and one of them is a dog. Jake and Reno have other things in common too, though. Both are hairy and have unorthodox methods, neither of them talks very much, and they both enjoy junk food and drinking out of the toilet.
Jake objects to having Reno assigned as his partner on the grounds that he prefers to work alone. The fact that Reno is a dog doesn’t figure as prominently in Jake’s argument as you’d think it would. “Sir, Reno is a DOG, and I don’t have ANY kind of police dog training,” is something you can imagine Jake saying in this situation. “In fact, I’m pretty sure there are liability issues here, aren’t there?” is what you might imagine Jake saying in furtherance of his case. But no, Jake’s primary complaint is that he doesn’t like working with others. Sometimes I think the movie forgets that Reno is a dog. He’s able to sniff out clues and make deductions at a much more advanced level than a dog should be able to. I could buy it if Reno were the result of a genetic experiment, but this isn’t “Rise of the Planet of the Dogs.” (Note to self: make a movie called “Rise of the Planet of the Dogs.”)
At any rate, Jake reluctantly takes Reno to the dock where old Detective Grandpa Swanson was murdered, and bullies the harbormaster into telling him what boat was registered at the now-empty space. “You got a warrant?” the harbormaster wants to know, quite reasonably. Jake replies, “Is there a problem?” and starts rooting through the files himself. MAYBE BEHAVIOR LIKE THIS IS WHY YOU’RE ALWAYS GETTING SHOT, JAKE.
Somehow Jake determines that Neo-Nazis are behind all this, which is confirmed for the viewer by a scene in an abandoned warehouse where the leader of the hate group rallies his followers. All of that is pretty cute and entertaining. Then Grandpa Swanson’s grandson, Matthew (Erik von Detten), shows up at Jake’s house wanting to play with Reno. You get the sense Reno was never an official “police” dog so much as he was an elderly cop’s pet who would go out on calls with him and occasionally take a bullet. Anyway, Matthew takes Reno for a run in the park, where they interrupt a dog show, with hilarity and shenanigans aplenty, because this is a kids’ movie (about a terrorist plot).
While this is going on, Jake visits his dotty old mother (Herta Ware) and tells her that some white supremacists are planning an attack soon, but the cops don’t know when or where. MAYBE BEHAVIOR LIKE THIS IS WHY YOUR MOTHER DOESN’T WANT TO SEE YOU, JAKE. Mom casually mentions that it’s probably going to be tomorrow, on account of tomorrow is April 20, which is Hitler’s birthday. Jake asks how she knows that, and she says, “It’s in all the history books,” which is probably true but isn’t much of an explanation. I started hoping Mom would turn out to be a secret Nazi, but I’ll spare you the disappointment and tell you right now that she isn’t.
So we have the date of the attack. But what’s the target? There are so many places in San Diego that attract hatred: synagogues, mosques, Comic-Con, Wes Mantooth’s house, the street corner where Shamu was gunned down by the FBI, etc. Jake finds the warehouse where the Neo-Nazis hang out and, lacking enough probable cause to get a warrant, breaks in anyway, because that’s how he rolls. He leaves a pair of cops to stand guard outside, and they get killed when the bad guys come back, but it’s not sad because they aren’t named Jake or Reno. (Notice that Jake’s talent for getting shot extends to getting other people shot, too.) After fighting some bad guys hand-to-hand, Jake finds out the target of tomorrow’s attack: a “Racial Unity” festival to be attended by ethnic and religious minorities from around the world in a spirit of peace and brotherhood.
Let’s catch up here. A conference promoting racial unity is scheduled for Hitler’s birthday … and the police are stymied when it comes to figuring out where and when a Neo-Nazi group might attack? Sleep well, citizens of San Diego! A mangy, bullet-riddled dog and some dumb cops are protecting you!
You’ll be pleased to know that Jake and Reno stop the terrorists from killing the assembly of Jewish, Catholic, and Hindu religious leaders, but not before representatives from all three faiths are trapped in a limo with a bomb attached to it that Jake has to defuse by using his special ability of randomly choosing which wire to pull out. Reno is likewise instrumental, in that he chases bad guys around and barks at them. Matthew, the grandson of the dead cop, shows up just in time to hear a particular villain confess that he killed the old man, adding a haunting coda to what is already a nightmarish sequence of events for the lad. Everyone involved will be traumatized for life! Except Chuck Norris, who walks away from the disaster of “Top Dog” in the same manner that he walks away from all his disasters, i.e., unscathed, and perhaps unaware that he has just appeared in a movie at all.