The latest entry in the curious British genre of ‘hard men being assholes’ comes from former Spandau Ballet member and Eastender Martin Kemp. As he was born on the mean streets of London himself, you might hope the musician/actor would bring a dose of reality to things, but we’re just as much in gangster-ish fantasy land as we normally are, even if there is a dose of morality that’s often lost in this sort of film.
Based on a novel and script by Green Street’s Dougie Brimson, Top Dog is about Billy (Leo Gregory), a small time bad boy who takes over a gang of football hooligans known as the Acton Casuals. When he discovers landlord members of his family are being hassled as part of a protection racket, he recklessly decides the Casuals are going to take over the pub and protect it themselves.
That doesn’t please the very nasty local gangsters, who aren’t going to let this small fry get in their way. However with Billy unwilling to back down a very dangerous game on one-upmanship ensues. It would be one thing if this brewing war just affected Billy, but soon his family and friends can’t escape what’s going on and things get very, very dangerous, with nobody evading the repercussions.
Many of the recent entries in this subgenre of British thrillers have essentially been gangster porn, but Top Dog does at least make an attempt to suggest Billy is trying to do the right thing, even if he’s going about it completely the wrong way. This is slightly clumsily set up when he throws someone being a racist dick through a window.
Thankfully – and unlike many of its contemporaries – it doesn’t decide that being ridiculously violent is a good thing as long as you’re being violent about the right things. The effects of Billy’s actions become increasingly clear, and while he initially seems to enjoy taking on the gangsters, the fallout is presented as being as much his fault as it is the truly nasty guys he’s gone up against.
Indeed, when the violent consequences emerge, there’s the potential for some real drama. However trying to fit that inbetween the usual hardman swagger and rather melodramatic gangster clichés means that it never fully succeeds. Similarly there are – unusually for this sort of film – a couple of good female roles, but again they have to fit in amongst the customary geezers and violence.
If you are a fan of ‘hard men being assholes’ movies, this isn’t a bad one. Indeed it’s a cut above most of the endless stream of these things we get subjected to every year, but that doesn’t mean it’s close to the Brit gangster greats. There’s the potential for a really good movie lurking in here, but by being a little too interested in movie gangster tropes and not enough in reality, it’s not all it might have been.
Overall Verdict: Better than most recent Brit gangster-style movies, but considering the competition that’s not the highest praise possible. Top Dog has some decent drama but is a little too beholden to geezer clichés to be a complete success.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac