TOP DOG

5 out of 10

Release Date: 1st June 2014 (DVD Premiere)

Director: Martin Kemp (Stalker (2011))

Cast: Leo Gregory, Ricci Harnett, Lorraine Stanley, George Russo, Dannielle Brent, George Sweeney, Susan Penhaligon, Francis Pope, Johnny Palmiero, Gary Lawrence, Ryan Oliva with Jason Flemyng and Vincent Regan

Writer: Dougie Brimson

Trailer: TOP DOG

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Martin Kemp’s (STALKER) second feature film as director, whilst being an improvement on his debut, is a solid yet melodramatic drama that refuses to distinguish itself. It’s about a small time criminal, Billy Evans (LEO GREGORY – WILD BILL) biting off more than he can chew.  Bolstered by committed performances from a talented cast of familiar and unknown faces, this could be producer Jonathan Sothcott‘s most serious and grown up film to date.  What stops Top Dog being one to remember and celebrate though is its reluctance to stand out from the crowd, a lack of originality and yet another ‘tin eared’ script.  This is rescued from stinkerdom though by notably excellent performances from Leo Gregory (who does convince as a man out of his depth), Lorraine Stanley (THE HOOLIGAN FACTORY) (who seems to be the ‘go-to’ lady when producers need a powerhouse actress in their low-budget flick) and Ricci Harnett (TURNOUT) (it’s always great to see this underused actor in all too rare leading roles).

The plot runs on rails. It’s all very predictable and plays like a violent, sweary yet over melodramatic episode of Eastenders. The soap operatics near the end over tip the whole film into parody come it’s misjudged ending, but for most of the film’s running time it keeps it’s cool and nerve. The plot also includes some football hooliganism. Yes, it’s a film without the word Hooligans in the title or a big ass St George’s flag on the front. Incredible!  Based on a novella by Dougie Brimson – the predictable plot sees top boy Billy of the local firm Acton Casuals (AC! CHA CHA CHA!) go up against Harnett’s local mr big when Billy’s Auntie’s (SUSAN PENHALIGON – SOLDIER OF ORANGE) pub begins getting squeezed for protection money.  The whole thing escalates in a tit-for-tat war that continually ups the stakes until people begin to get kidnapped, killed and the whole skirmish gets extinguished by bigger fish further up the food chain.

There are flashes of visual brilliance in this other wise ordinary point and shoot affair.  The film’s opening shot of what appears to be snow covered mountains turns out to be something altogether different is powerful and difficult to forget. It’s a shame the rest of the film is directed and lensed so anonymously, but these are small complaints when Kemp, Sothcott and the actors have gotten so much right this time. A reliable Jonathan Sothcott production has been a long time coming. After his solo calling card Vendetta proved, his brand isn’t arsing around in the shallows anymore. He’s on the way up. Vendetta was a huge success and with Top Dog, it’s proven itself to be a hard act to follow. I’m happy to say that whilst Top Dog isn’t great at least it feels like a real film. It doesn’t look cheap and the plot is tight and makes sense throughout. It’s also harder to critique a film that I don’t like because it’s down to my personal tastes, rather than not liking it because it’s a slap dash piece of cheap crap.  Whilst this comes across like a place holder before the bigger more flashier Jonathan Sothcott productions come down the line it still serves as the second best film he’s put together in his short but very busy run. Here’s to We Still Kill The Old Way and Age of Kill doing less fence sitting and more thrill making.

5 out of 10 – Solid yet ordinary gangster melodrama that is helped no end by a stellar cast committed to getting this Dog on (or near) the top. Middle Dog it is then.

Another review by Joe Pesci II below.

WHAT HAVE I SEEN THAT ACTOR IN BEFORE?

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One thought on “TOP DOG

  1. TOP DOG – review by Matt ‘Joe Pesci II’ Usher

    Let’s get one thing established right now: TOP DOG is, by most standards, an extremely ordinary crime drama. The plot is as old as the hills and springs not one surprise on the seasoned viewer. And it’s a standard hooligans vs gangsters bust-up (what do you mean you didn’t know there was a difference between hooligans and gangsters?). And the voice-over pontificating about vengeance and regret can probably be found in every film noir ever made.

    But TOP DOG somehow manages to succeed within those restraints where many other films (usually made by the somewhat lackadaisical Paul Tanter) have failed. This time Martin Kemp (yes, the famous ex-Spandau Ballerina of Eastenders fame) is our director, and he’s come up with something which looks and sounds like a real film, the sort you see at the pictures. I repeat however, this is a very ordinary film, but, in the world of the low-budget gangster-flick at least, that is quite high praise.

    Our hero (who I think was called Mickey and is played by the more-than-reliable Leo Gregory) is a small-time businessman and part-time leader of a mob of football hooligans (a dying breed the film tells us, though one which the British film industry seems intent on resurrecting) none of whom ever seem to go anywhere near a football stadium. But then it turns out that his uncle and aunt’s pub has fallen victim to a protection racket run by local gangster boss Ricci Harnett. Our Mickey decides it might be a bright idea to teach Harnett a lesson, which he does by converting his hooligan outfit into a team of pub-violating vigilantes. But Mickey’s a bit of a fool and he doesn’t know he’s digging a deep hole for himself and for those he cares about (I told you it was a hackneyed plot – God knows how the novel got published). The whole thing escalates, a pregnant woman is imperilled (Lorraine Stanley stealing the acting honours yet again, and quite right too) and a best mate bites the bullet (I’d better not say who), and then the Irish turn up in the reassuring yet sinister shape of Vincent Regan.

    What distinguishes this from the rest of the Lost Stock genre is Leo Gregory and the character of Mickey (I’m sure it’s Mickey). What we have here is a big fish (or top dog) in one sphere of endeavour (hooliganising) who dives dumbly into the deep end of a different sphere of endeavour (racketeering) and only afterwards begins to realise how dumb he’s been. What I liked was Gregory’s acknowledgement of this: his sigh of relief after facing down a bad guy (or so he thinks), or his rubbish panicky running when the game’s up (or it may just be that Gregory is a rubbish runner). And, like most idiots out of their depth, he dives deeper. Gregory nicely combines the desperation and hubris in the character. This is perhaps partly due to the director Martin Kemp. Although a mostly unimaginative director in terms of visuals and pacing (indeed there are several scenes which fade to black at the end – a technique which I thought had ended with Doctor Kildare) (although the opening sequence is quite intriguing and clever it doesn’t really have much to do with the film itself), Kemp does get the best out of his actors. As well as the excellent turns from Gregory and Lorraine Stanley, most of the rest of the low budget regulars put in better performances than usual, particularly Vincent Regan as the Really Big Villain, and George Russo as the Doomed Best Pal. Ricci Harnett is pretty good though he should have refused to wear that hat in his last scene.

    Kemp’s big failure as a director is in maintaining momentum. The finale is both silly and underpowered, so it all just falls apart, and the supposedly shock ending just leaves you wondering about what happened to the other members of the cast. Nevertheless, for the most part this is a solidly put-together small-scale film which delivers most of its goals. The script is nothing special, but it rings true more often than it rings false, and the film looks appropriately miserable without insisting on being moody.

    TOP DOG is no masterpiece but it’s a pretty decent attempt at a B movie. Now, that may seem like faint praise, but when you’ve sat through BIG FAT GYPSY GANGSTER and TEN DEAD MEN you’re grateful for TOP DOG. Actually that’s faint praise as well. Honestly, this is quite a good film, and it’s not often I get to say that, so let’s just leave it at that.

    Erratum: I’ve just checked – our hero is actually called Billy, please accept my sincere apologies for any confusion caused, and any offence taken by readers called Mickey.

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