Excessive violence gives 'Top Dog' too much bite


Benji was cuter, Lassie more elegant and Beethoven sadder-eyed. But Reno, the huge pooch that plays Chuck Norris' cop partner in "Top Dog," makes you laugh just looking at the camera.

When Reno's first human partner (Carmine Caridi) meets a bullet, the 90-pound canine gets assigned to Jake Wilder (Chuck Norris). The lone-wolf officer doesn't want a partner, especially a big scruffy dog. But when they battle a ring of neo-Nazis, reluctance, of course, turns to respect.

The Chuck-and-Reno scenario of the film, which is being promoted as family entertainment, is a winner -- silly dog tricks and broad humor. But it's grafted onto a mow-'em-down action film where policemen are shot dead, terrorists threaten with guns and explosives, and the dog is tossed into the bay.

That's too bad, because there are plenty of kid-pleasing moments. Like when Mr. Norris opens a can of dog food, plops it into a dish on the floor, and unwraps a barbecued chicken for dinner. Then the phone rings, the inevitable happens, and Mr. Norris yells, "What am I supposed to eat?" With a paw, Reno pushes his bowl at his partner.

Of course, there's not a scintilla of subtlety in the plot. Mr. Norris doesn't pretend to nuanced art. Here, he wears flashy boxer shorts and lives in a pigpen of a house littered with beer cans and trash. "Don't mess up," he warns Reno on the dog's first night in his home.

Mr. Norris is on to something here. The French briard pooch and the bearded martial artist make a great comedy team. Though the action star doesn't have tassels on his ears, he and Reno seem like a matched set. Maybe it's because neither one is really acting. Mr. Norris shows up, does his thing and walks off. So does Reno. Together, they're funnier than Tom Hanks and Hooch.

Herta Ware, the widow of Will Geer (TV's Grandpa Walton), plays Mr. Norris' mom. Clyde Kusatsu (Margaret Cho's dad on ABC's "All-American Girl") is a retiring police chief who wants to be mayor. Aaron Norris, who's worked with older brother on more than 20 films, directs.

"Top Dog" follows the Norris brothers' sweet, inspirational family film "Sidekicks." But where that kidded Mr. Norris' career image in fantasy scenes, this has the kickmaster armed and deadly.

"Top Dog" isn't my idea of family entertainment. In the light of Oklahoma City, Tokyo and Waco, the shaggy-dog tale would have been a lot funnier with a lower body count and less artillery.

"Top Dog"

Directed by Aaron Norris

Starring Chuck Norris

Released by Live Entertainment

Rated PG-13 (violence)

** 1/2

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