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K-9000 (1991)

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"You’re not a real dog? You’re a computer?"
"Not exactly. What I am is a canine with a computer implant…."

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Director: Kim Manners

Starring: Chris Mulkey, Catherine Oxenberg, Jerry Houser, Judson Earney Scott, Dennis Haysbert, Anne Haney, Ivan E. Roth, Tom McFadden

Screenplay: Steven E. De Souza and Michael Part

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Synopsis: Detective Eddie Monroe (Chris Mulkey) is demoted to traffic patrol after a disastrous car chase that ends with the destruction of an exclusive Los Angeles boutique. At the Piper Institute, animal liberationists led by Edna Wiffington (Anne Haney) stage a protest. As a group of terrorists approaches the Institute, their leader, Anton Zeiss (Judson Earney Scott), infiltrates the protest. Feigning illness, Danny (Ivan E. Roth), a security guard, leaves work early, giving his security pass and the day’s password to Zeiss. Inside, Federal Agent Banks (Tom McFadden) watches the protest on the news, abusing Mrs Wiffington. As Dr Aja Turner (Catherine Oxenberg) begins to shut the project down for the day, she tells Banks that Mrs Wiffington is a close friend of hers and is protesting only because she has been misinformed about the nature of their work. The terrorists break into the main laboratory, shooting one of the researchers before Aja can activate the security doors. The terrorists blow the door open, shooting everyone present except Aja, who manages to hide. Zeiss orders his team to disconnect one of the lab’s incubators, which contains a strange, cocoon-like object, and steal all the project data. That done, Zeiss shoots up the rest of the lab. He then finds Aja’s ID, but discovers that she has escaped through a wall duct. The next day, Eddie is recalled to detective work. Linking the lab break-in to the protest, Eddie shows Mrs Wiffington news footage, and she identifies Zeiss. Eddie shows Zeiss’s photograph to Banks, who survived the assault. Banks recognises him, but points out that the absence of Aja makes her the prime suspect. Meanwhile, Aja has tracked down Danny, who is leaving town. As she tries to get answers from him, Zeiss shoots and kills him. He fires again at Aja, who is saved by the arrival of Eddie. Eddie arrests Aja, but releases her when she convinces him that she can lead him to the killers. That night, the two approach a dilapidated warehouse that Aja believes is Zeiss’s hide-out. The two break in, locating the stolen incubator. Zeiss discovers their presence. Eddie holds the killers off by locking a fire-door. The cocoon-like object in the incubator writhes and breaks open, releasing a dog. Eddie convinces Aja to leave, promising to destroy the incubator so that Zeiss cannot have it. As he approaches the machine, a robotic arm clasps his head, implanting a microchip in his temple. As Zeiss and his subordinate break in, the dog attacks them, then hurls itself at Eddie, knocking him and itself through a window and into the river…. When Eddie regains consciousness the next morning, he is astonished to find himself outside his apartment, and even more astonished when his canine companion begins to speak….

Comments: Even by the standards of failed TV pilots, K-9000 is an unusually clunky piece of work. It is hard to decide who would have comprised its target audience. The frequency of bloody murders, shootings, fights and explosions makes you hope it was intended for adults, but the painfully twee central concept of the talking dog seems to mark it for kids – and quite young kids, at that. The film’s main "character" is an Alsatian, K-9000, or "Niner", who has had part of his brain removed and replaced with a computer, which allows him to talk via an implanted electronic receiver, and comes with such cutesy extras as an in-built cellular phone.

For the most part, K-9000 plays like any one of a dozen "child genius" stories, where the child in question has to be taught the joys of being "just a kid" – such as playing baseball, or getting his clothes dirty. Here, intervention comes via Eddie Monroe, the inevitable working-class slob (and I’m not being condescending here: Eddie is a slob. Naturally. After all, he’s a bachelor). Eddie is suitably horrified to discover that Niner doesn’t know what a fire hydrant is for, or how to play fetch, and immediately sets about teaching him how to be "just a dog". Unfortunately, although the cybernetic mutt is supposed to be a supreme scientific achievement, the dog playing the part isn’t quite up to it. It’s a really nice dog, but along with its ill-timed tail waggings, it spends rather too much time gazing imploringly off-camera at its handler (or maybe its agent).

Nevertheless, the animal comes off better than its human co-stars. Instead of characterisations, the screenplay by Michael Part and Steven De Souza (who wrote and directed Street Fighter – my second encounter with him in the past fortnight. Ouch!) gives us a couple of protagonists seemingly churned out by the Trait-O-Matic 2000. Eddie, in particular, is almost wholly defined by two completely unfunny running gags: his ongoing war with technology (so that when he gets partnered up with a computerised dog, it will be ironic, see?) and the picture of Morgan Fairchild that he keeps showing instead of his badge ("It came with the wallet!"). Currently teamed with a by-the-book black partner (where do they get their ideas?), the anti-authoritarian Eddie was formerly with the dog squad, but quit after his canine partner "took a bullet" for him and "died in his arms".

Not surprisingly, Chris Mulkey can do nothing with his role. Catherine Oxenberg (one of several English actresses cast as scientists in recent American movies – is the accent supposed to make them sound brainy, or what?) doesn’t fare much better. Nevertheless, Aja Turner is at the centre of K-9000’s only point of real interest, namely the film’s complete and utter ideological confusion. The problem is this: Aja is Our Heroine. Therefore Aja is a good person. But Aja does animal experiments. And only bad people do animal experiments. This black-and-white view of the world presents the writers with a philosophical dilemma that they try to escape from via whole chunks of hilariously sophistical dialogue. This begins when Aja explains to Eddie how she met Anton Zeiss in Lebanon. The government had flown Aja, a graduate student in Animal Research, to Beirut, to work on "the accelerated training of Marine guard dogs. Of course, I didn’t approve," Aja adds hastily ("Of course," sneers the audience – and, to his credit, Eddie), "but I wanted to test my theories in the field." Well, yeah – that’s much more important than sticking to your principles, isn’t it? (I feel obliged to point out at this stage that, for someone who doesn’t approve of animal experimentation, taking a degree in "Animal Research" probably wasn’t a wise move. Not to mention that there is no such thing as a degree in "Animal Research".) The next piece of apologism comes courtesy of Niner himself. In the face of Eddie’s horrified reaction to the discovery that Aja implanted a computer in the dog’s brain, Niner explains that her motives were pure as the driven snow: that he had been born "prematurely, with a cranial defect" and that, but for Aja’s actions, he would have died. Yup, that’s right, folks: years and years of research, and millions of dollars, just to save the life of a sick puppy. Don’t it warm your heart? But Aja’s vision goes beyond just curing dogs with defects. She sees a golden future of humans and canines working together, guarding game parks, patrolling wildlife reserves, educating the public. Still, it seems that even the writers had trouble swallowing this piece of fairy-floss, because by the end of the pilot, Niner is staring down the barrel of a life spent partnering Eddie. This follows from perhaps the film’s most groan-inducing moment. Initially, Aja is appalled that Eddie has been accidentally implanted with the microchip that allows him to communicate with Niner, and that the dog’s introduction to the world has been in such inappropriate hands (see "Immortal Dialogue"). But by the end Aja has changed her mind, deciding that a "regular guy" like Eddie is just the man for the job. (Of course, things might have been different if she knew that Eddie had already taught Niner to refer to her as "the broad".)

If you can cope with all of this, a viewing of K-9000 will reward you with a few moments guaranteed to warm the hearts of bad-film aficionados. One classic flub is the death of the security guard, Danny. Zeiss shoots him in the back, and although the bullet passes right through him, leaving a spectacular exit wound, Aja, who is standing directly in front of him, is miraculously unharmed. Then there’s the boutique owner in the opening sequence, who might have stepped whole and breathing from Monty Python And The Holy Grail: dig that outrrrrageous French accent! For the scientifically aware, there is also a beautiful shot of one of Aja’s subordinates, scrupulously clad from head to foot in a sterile working uniform – but with her hair hanging out the back! The highlight of K-9000, however, is undoubtedly the scene that introduces Our Heroine, who is first seen wearing a pair of severe and unflattering horn-rimmed glasses, and has her hair pinned up. And, yes, Gentle Reader, you guessed it: at the end of the working day, she does take off her glasses and slowly shake out her long blonde hair (although, to my intense disappointment, none of her colleagues gasps, "My God, Dr Turner! You’re beautiful!"). These scenes do provide some much-needed leaven, but whether they make K-9000 worth sitting through is probably up to the cliché tolerance of the individual.