Oct 9, 2020
Movie Duel: K-9 vs. Turner & Hooch
Welcome back to Movie Duels, in which we watch two dueling movies and offer our eminently qualified opinion of which film, if any, has a reason for existing, and which one should have been left back at the pitch meeting.
A bit of personal history here: my dad is a game bird hunter and keeps hunting dogs. At no point growing up did my family have any fewer than two dogs in the house, often more, since my mother had no taste for those purebred workhorses and wanted her own, less hardcore dogs. My sister majored in animal behavior in college, and trained dogs for a while. I myself do not own dogs (apartment life! represent!) but I’ve worked as a dog walker and at a couple of different animal shelters. So yeah, I guess it’d be fair to call me a dog person.
That fact played a lot into the movies I enjoyed growing up. As a kid, my folks caught on pretty quickly that anything they found at the video store with a dog on the cover would be a solid electronic-babysitting option (with the notable exception of Baxter). And boy, howdy… if you were a kid who was into dogs and movies, what a time to grow up! The years of my upbringing had just a mess of dog movies, some of which hold up in retrospect, some not so much: there was Beethoven, Homeward Bound, The Adventures of Milo and Otis, Air Bud, Zeus and Roxanne, remakes of The Shaggy Dog and Lassie, new adaptations of White Fang and Shiloh, and on and on and on.
Given the rash of dog films on the market at the time, it makes sense that they would attempt to do some genre-mixing, if only for variety. Two attempts to inject dogs into the buddy-cop comedy genre are the subject of this edition of Movie Duels: K-9 and Turner & Hooch, which came out within three months of each other in 1989.
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What can there really be to say about these two movies? They’re breezy, unadventurous comedies of the kind that sprang up like fungus in the waning years of the 1980s. Neither one’s exactly contending for inclusion in the Library of Congress. There’s nothing here that’s new or fresh or even particularly interesting. These movies are pure formula exercises in pushing the right buttons in the right sequence to extract money, and if you have an inherent problem with that, you must find it hard to live in the Western world.
But making a movie that’s formulaic and shamelessly commercial is no excuse for slapdash work. Craft matters. One of these movies understands this.
Jerry Lee, the canine star of K-9 (hey, I just got that), is a German shepherd who works for the San Diego PD. Jim Belushi’s loose-cannon detective, Michael Dooley, gets him by calling in a favor from his department’s K-9 supervisor (Ed O’Neill). Det. Dooley plans to use Jerry Lee’s skilled nose to locate a drug shipment that the rest of his department doesn’t think exists.
Couple things, right off the bat: actual K-9 officers typically are assigned to a human partner right out of training, and spend their entire careers working with that officer exclusively. Most actually live in their partner’s homes. Human officers have to train extensively alongside their canine partners. Cops can’t just go down to a storage room and check out a dog like it’s a spare gun belt, particularly if the cop in question lacks even general knowledge about dogs, which Det. Dooley freely admits. And even if they could, they wouldn’t be able to check out a dog like Jerry Lee, who doesn’t obey commands, eats garbage that gives him terrible flatulence, and straight-up attacks people without warning. Do I even need to explain why such a dog wouldn’t fly on the police force?
Oh, and also, he’s supposed to be a drug-sniffing dog, but literally the only drug sniffing he does in the whole movie is when he finds a dude smoking a joint in a closet, a feat so easy my parents, who are neither dogs nor cops, can do it.
The implausibility of Jerry Lee’s whole deal is one thing. I didn’t come into this movie expecting accuracy. But here’s what really makes me mad about his “character”. When hacky writers want to make dogs funny, they usually make the same mistake as they do when trying to make kids funny: they turn them into precocious mini-people. Jerry Lee is a prime example. He acts un-doggish in ways that strain credibility. He understands spoken English quite well, which is good, because Det. Dooley doesn’t know how to command a dog and can’t be arsed to learn. Instead, Dooley talks to Jerry Lee exactly like he would a human, and Jerry Lee reacts to Dooley’s lines with conversationally appropriate growls and grunts, at one point even going “uh-oh” when he’s in trouble. Their relationship is materially identical to a human relationship in which one of the humans poops on the sidewalk.
I hate this kind of bullshit, because dogs are hilarious in their own right. If you actually take the trouble to observe and interact with dogs, authentically funny dog-related comedy bits come easily. But it seems lots of people would rather play the “dog does stuff people do but it’s funny because a dog, not a person is doing it, get it?? He’s a dog” card.
By contrast, Hooch, the titular sidekick from Turner & Hooch, plays a dog who does dog things. He’s a Bullmastiff, if I don’t miss my guess; a mangy old cuss owned by a mangy old man who lives down at the wharf in the small town where Detective Turner (Tom Hanks) works. His backstory’s also much better put-together than Jerry Lee’s. One night, the old man spies some illegal doings outside his house, and the perpetrators murder him to keep him quiet, and wouldn’t you know it, Hooch is the closest thing there is to a material witness, forcing Inspector Turner (Tom Hanks) to keep him around. It’s dumb. But it’s coherently dumb. It’s dumb with integrity.
Hooch doesn’t act like a person. He doesn’t understand Tom Hanks when he talks. He doesn’t act in ways that suggest prevarication or spite or smartassery or any number of things that dogs aren’t actually capable of. He’s just a big disgusting lummox who wrecks shit. That doesn’t exactly make him a standout in the annals of movie dogs, but at the very least he’s authentically doggy. I’ve known dogs just like Hooch. He rings true. He doesn’t need contrived scenarios to be funny. And unlike Jerry Lee, who runs through all of his bits with the same blank glare, Hooch is actually quite emotive (in dog fashion) and, for lack of a better word, banters well with his co-stars.
Which brings me to the humans. Tom Hanks’s Turner is a buttoned-down, rule-abiding, obsessively tidy small-town detective—almost Dooley’s opposite. The kind of guy who’ll vacuum the donut crumbs off your shirt before they get on his car seat. He’s friends with Hooch’s wizened owner, and indulges his insane ramblings while keeping an eye out not to get the seat of his pants bitten out. Once Hooch comes into his possession, his life is turned upside down, almost literally in the movie’s most famous scene, in which Hooch breaks out of the laundry room and methodically lays waste to the whole house. But in well-trodden buddy-cop fashion, Turner learns to accept Hooch’s quirks and eagerly accepts his help in catching his owner’s murderers.
We’ve seen this character type in the movies before. So, so, so many times. But Hanks sands the edges off the neuroticism and pettiness that usually accompany it, turning what would have been a depressing chore to watch into something pleasant and engaging and classically Hanksian. He’s got that sort of old Hollywood charisma that draws you in, and the finely honed actor’s instincts that know juuust how much to sauce up a tight-ass to make him relatable while still remaining a tight-ass. And his comic timing elevates pedestrian punchlines to elicit sincere chuckles.
Jim Belushi is neither as good an actor nor as funny as Tom Hanks. A ballsy take, to be sure, but one I’m willing to defend. Not that he had much of a character to embody. Detective Dooley is a total Mitchell: he’s pudgy, dumb, oafish, prone to extreme lapses of judgment, confrontational, and like Mitchell, he can switch between being a maverick super-cop and a floundering fuck-up as the needs of the scene dictate. On the one hand, he’s good enough at his job that a bunch of criminals in a helicopter [!] try to murder him in the opening scene; but also, his idea of a brilliant gambit is to wander into a suspect’s dinner party and wave a gun around because “I gotta make him think I’m crazy!” He commits fireable offenses in every scene but because he’s an ’80s movie cop, never faces a reprimand more severe than “You goddamn knucklehead, get out of my office!”
I know guys like this in real life, and they all think they love dogs, but what they really love is having a male friend with comparable hygiene whom they can hug without a “no homo”. Which is why it rings so false that Dooley’s relationship with Jerry Lee is so rocky. Most of the things that Dooley hates about Jerry Lee (his stubbornness, his surliness, his grossness) are qualities that Dooley himself shares, a fact which K-9 resolutely fails to either fix or get any comedy out of. Dooley, for example, is exactly the kind of person who would try to peek at a couple having sex, as Jerry Lee does to Dooley. I’d even go so far as to say that, if locked in a closet as punishment, Dooley would absolutely shit on the floor in protest.
Dooley and Jerry Lee are pretty much the same: gross, dumb, unpleasant animals. They seem like they ought to be best friends right off the bat. Not only is that bad comedy, that’s bad formula. The whole point of the buddy-cop genre is that the two leads are supposed to be way different. Turner & Hooch understands this. Turner and Hooch are the oddest of odd couples. It’s a tired dynamic, but they know it well and perform it succinctly. That right there is why it succeeds and K-9 doesn’t: craft. They care enough to create a coherent and plausible, if clichéd, story. They care enough to coax worthy performances and a believable relationship out of their stars.
Winner: Turner & Hooch