MOVIE REVIEWS : Hanks and His Dog Charm in ‘Turner and Hooch’

When Tom Hanks stares testily or fondly at his co-star in “Turner and Hooch” (citywide), a Dogue de Bordeaux named Beasley, you can sense a real connection. And when Beasley stares back--wattles matted with froth, huge red eyes in a Winston Churchill-ish glower--these two actors seem to have genuine respect for each other’s abilities. Hanks shrieks; Beasley cocks his head. Hanks pants; Beasley barks. Hanks kvetches; Beasley sniffs. Hanks flinches; Beasley jumps on him and chomps jovially at his throat.

They work together with the seeming near-telepathic sensitivity of longtime vaudeville partners. It’s good that “Turner and Hooch” has this chemistry at its center, due to the actors and to Beasley’s ingenious trainer, Clint Rowe, because it’s another movie that seems stranded without a script, somewhere south of the last deal and east of the fifth rewrite. Shot mostly on Terminal Island, it’s the story of Turner, a small-town pier cop in a coastal city who inherits the obstreperous pooch Hooch after his master (John McIntire) is knifed in the aftermath of a nearby murder, leaving the faithful dog as sole eyewitness.

This catastrophe binds together Turner and Hooch in a variation on “The Odd Couple,” with Hanks the equivalent of nippy perfectionist Felix and Beasley as another slob Oscar: guzzling beer, swilling whiskey, expectorating, expelling gas, destroying cars, chasing females and otherwise behaving like Walter Matthau unleashed. There is another love interest in “Turner and Hooch,” a beautiful feisty veterinarian (Mare Winningham) who pops up as if by magic; she also, conveniently, has a gorgeous collie. But, basically, Beasley and Hanks are the whole show.

For a while, it’s not a bad show at that. One reason “Big” worked well was the unself-conscious way that Hanks projects boyish qualities of enthusiasm, curiosity, petulance, candor, spontaneity. He really looks and acts like a kid at heart, and, in this movie, he looks like a fussbudget of a kid who needs a good, big, sloppy dog to warm him out. The production team behind them, with director Roger Spottiswoode and virtuoso cameraman Adam Greenberg (“Near Dark”), gives “Turner and Hooch” crispness and pace. Spottiswoode’s movies are always beautifully edited, and there’s a sheen to the images: When Beasley shakes his jowls, slow-motion sweat and drool fly off him like sunlit beads in a beer commercial.

The basic plot of a man-dog team tracking criminals, suspiciously similar to the April release “K-9,” with Jim Belushi and German shepherd Jerry Lee, suggests that modern movies don’t actually influence each other but somehow break out all at once, like epidemics. Tender relationships like the one between Turner and Hooch, full of delicate interplay, compassion and robust fellowship, aren’t really being created for men and women, “When Harry Met Sally . . .” honorably excepted.

But the co-stars can distract you only so much. Three separate screen-writing entities--the teams of Dennis Shryak & Michael Blodgett (“Rent-a-Cop”) and the ubiquitous Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr. (“Top Gun”) plus executive producer Daniel Petrie Jr.--seem to have canceled each other out. There are hints of Petrie’s talent for zippy badinage, traces of Shryak-Blodgett’s Gothic cop cliches. Finally, everything seems to get smoothed over by Cash and Epps, the great homogenizers: two writers who could probably take “Anna Karenina” and flatten it out into “Vronsky and Me.”

As a bunch, the film makers have created the sort of mystery story that might well puzzle a 12-year-old who had never read a mystery story before and wasn’t paying attention anyway, and the sort of love story that 12-year-olds might throw away to read the mystery story, along with the sort of dog story many dogs would actually enjoy--if the pages were edible.

Luckily the team of Hanks and Beasley are around to save the show, tell a few snappy stories, dance a few licks, chase a few crooks, make you laugh, make you cry. Who needs writers? Hanks has his charm; Beasley has his barks. Everything else is counterpoint. One thing though: Speaking as an old dog-lover, especially of Samoyed mixes, I don’t like the ending of “Turner and Hooch” (MPAA-rated PG, despite violence). Movies may actually be going to the dogs these days, but that entails certain rules and responsibilities.