It’s a testament to how secure the conventions of the mismatched-cop buddy comedy were by the late 1980s that an animal incapable of speech, abstract thought, or any of the other qualities that have historically helped people solve crimes could be swapped in as half the buddy team without much trouble. The late 1980s saw a small boom in interspecies buddy comedies. First James Belushi, the least charming actor in existence, buddied up with a pooch in the 1989 sleeper hit K-9. A few months later, Tom Hanks, the most charming actor in existence, got in on The Belush’s leftovers with the even more successful Turner & Hooch, directed by action-movie veteran Roger Spottiswoode. (Six years later, Chuck Norris, who can hardly even be called an actor, followed with 1995’s Top Dog.)
If nothing else, Turner & Hooch proved the durability of the mismatched-buddy-comedy formula by essentially cross-breeding two buddy comedies we recently covered in Movie Of The Week: The Odd Couple and 48 Hrs. The film casts Hanks in the Felix Unger role of an uptight fussbudget who sees a day without flossing as akin to barbarism. The first five minutes of the film are assiduously devoted to chronicling the extent of Turner’s buttoned-up, risk-free existence as he goes about his daily business with a fastidiousness bordering on pathology. But since Hanks is beloved precisely because he’s such a loose, charming, spontaneous performer, casting him as a man joylessly obsessed with order and rules plays against his innate strengths.
As the film opens, Hanks’ Detective Scott Turner is getting ready to leave his sleepy small town and transfer to the glamorous big-city drama of Sacramento. But before he can make the leap, he must deal with the death of Amos Reed (John McIntire), who looks like a live-action version of the crazy old man who would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids and their dog in most episodes of Scooby-Doo. The only witness to Amos’ murder is his beloved dog Hooch, a French mastiff often shot running slowly in slow motion, giant trails of drool frothing from his massive jowls. Trouble is, he looks more than a little like a monster when running in slow motion. There are many puzzling aspects to Turner & Hooch. One of them is that with all the adorable, awww-inducing dogs out there, they chose to pick a dog so ugly that even a dog lover like myself had a hard time looking at him for 97 minutes.
Where Turner is a fussy, order-obsessed Felix Ungar, Hooch is a canine Oscar Madison, an unrepentant slob who delights in shaking up his new owner’s orderly world, largely by slobbering on everything he doesn’t chew apart. Turner is initially mortified by the anarchy Hooch introduces into his life of ritual and repetition, but in the time-honored tradition of buddy-cop movies, Hooch’s example gets his partner to lighten up a little, especially once Turner starts dating veterinarian Emily Carson (Mare Winningham). I have nothing against Winningham but I suspect her business card reads, “Mare Winningham: When everyone else said ‘no.’” I doubt she’s the first choice even for thankless roles like “arbitrary girlfriend of a guy who spends an entire film playing second fiddle to an unusually slobbery dog.”
Turner adopts Hooch with the understanding that as the only eye-witness to Amos’ murder, the dog might be able to help crack the case. Consequently, there are a lot of scenes of an exasperated Hanks complaining to Beasley, the mastiff who plays Hooch. These scenes make sense within the context of the film, but for Hanks, it must have been crazy-making, playing out most of the film opposite a creature that could neither understand a word he’s saying, or respond. (Although in hindsight, it was good preparation for Hanks’ even more one-sided friendship with Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away). Still, about an hour into Turner & Hooch, there’s a tender moment when twinkly music plays and Hanks contemplates how much pain Hooch must be in, and how much he must miss ol’ Amos and the happy, comfortable life they shared together. In this moment, and in others throughout the film’s third act, Hanks creates a sense of genuine connection with his slobbery partner.
On the whole, Turner & Hooch is dreadful, but there are small moments throughout that illustrate what a remarkable actor is being wasted in this idiocy, from a breakthrough moment when Hooch stops being a nuisance and lovingly places his head in Turner’s lap to a stakeout scene where Turner has an animated, albeit one-sided conversation with his partner about slobbering, Lancelot Link, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and anything else that crosses his mind. The ability to convincingly and entertainingly carry on a conversation with a dog, while the dog stares back with oblivious, unknowing eyes: That’s what Hanks brings to the role, and that’s a big part of what makes Turner & Hooch the Citizen Kane of movies where a cop is partnered with a misbehaving dog. (It helps that its only competition are movies starring Chuck Norris and James Belushi.) This is what should have won Hanks the Academy Award, not that stunty Forrest Gump horseshit.
Turner, the ostensible expert and super-cop, ends up learning a lot from his partner much lower down on the evolutionary chain. He begins the film obsessed with flossing and neatness, but after bonding with Hooch, he’s such a daring renegade that sometimes he even foregoes wearing a tie. (Though to be fair, he’s an unusually unclothed cop—seriously, Hanks spends seemingly half the film cavorting about his apartment in his underwear for some inexplicable reason.) Hanks is a gifted physical comedian, but early in the first act, he and the film exhaust the extremely limited comic possibilities of an uptight man yelling at a dog. Thankfully, Turner & Hooch gets better as it goes along and it loosens up. Turner & Hooch turns out to be a much more winning conceit than Hooch Vs. Turner, the dynamic that dominates the film’s awful first half.
Turner & Hooch isn’t much of a comedy, but it also isn’t much of a cop movie. It takes Turner, a good cop, far too long to connect the dots between the only two crimes the town has apparently experienced all year: the old man’s murder, and some kids finding $8,000 in cash. With Hooch’s aid, Turner cracks the big case, and in the film’s climax, he goes after the bad guys. Spoiler: While coming to Turner’s aid, Hooch is killed. Let me repeat that, in case it didn’t sink in the first time around: This PG-rated family film is about a wholesome cop who bonds with a slobbery but ultimately nice dog, and it ends with the dog getting murdered.
At the risk of repeating myself: They kill the dog. I mean, within the context of the narrative, the bad guys kill the dog, but in a larger context, the filmmakers made the decision that the best way to end their dumb, pandering buddy-cop comedy would be by graphically murdering a dog it’s spent an hour and a half getting audiences to care about. It could be argued that killing Hooch gives the film a sense of dramatic heft and urgency it would otherwise lack. But I would argue a piece of fluff as dumb as Turner & Hooch doesn’t need a sense of dramatic heft and urgency. It does not need to end by reminding children of the brutal realities of life, one of the most painful of which is that that dog you love so much is going to die someday, albeit hopefully not via being shot by a generic villain.
To give the film credit, Hanks kills in Hooch’s death scene, creating a convincing sense that the death of this dog he’s come to love is going to leave deep, permanent emotional scars. From a commercial and narrative standpoint, killing the dog is an idiotic mistake, but at least it lets Hanks do some real, hardcore acting. Accordingly, from the perspective of 2015, Turner & Hooch is most compelling as an opportunity to see one of our greatest and most beloved actors do stellar work in a movie that is more or less pure garbage.
True, Turner & Hooch ends with the crowd-pleasing revelation that before he was brutally murdered in a way seemingly designed to traumatize dog-loving children, Hooch fathered a lookalike that’s just as prone to antics, shenanigans, and tomfoolery. But it’s too late. The two takeaways from this exceedingly light comedy is that Tom Hanks can work magic in a complete vacuum, and that the fucking dog died for reasons I have a hard time wrapping my head around.
Turner & Hooch is the kind of box-office hit that’s so poorly received critically and by the public that it seems to count as a loss for everyone involved, no matter how much money it made. And as the 16th top-grossing film of 1989, with a domestic gross above $70 million, Turner & Hooch made an awful lot of money. Nonetheless, Turner & Hooch lives on today as a punchline, and as the go-to illustration of missteps Hanks made before recovering to become the multi-Academy Award-winning delight we’ve come to know and love today.