Bingo (1991)

Mike Ward

Bingo's handful of good scenes usually have less to do with the dog than with humans who struggle with their inability to manipulate tools.


Director: Matthew Robbins
Cast: Cindy Williams, David Rasche, Robert J. Steinmiller, Jr.
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: TriStar Pictures
First date: 1991
US DVD Release Date: 2007-05-07

There's nothing like the love between a boy and his dog.

This, predictably enough, is the moral of Bingo, a stunningly unwatchable dog movie from 1991, notable above all for the presence of Cindy Williams -- who, it must be said, does not use many of the acting tricks she learned in The Conversation.

Williams plays mother to the aforementioned boy, Chuckie Devlin (Robert J. Steinmiller, Jr.), a fellow who, being a tad runtier than his peers, shows little talent for keeping human company. We learn this early on when, in an effort to impress his big brother and a band of cruel playmates, Chuckie crashes his bike and knocks himself unconscious while trying to jump a shallow creek.

This gives Chuckie the opportunity to be rescued by Bingo, an escaped circus dog who stumbles on the mostly-drowned kid and -- in an irony I'm not sure what to make of -- successfully makes the jump Chuckie failed at, landing on his chest to administer a canine variant of the Heimlich maneuver.

Thus a friendship is sparked, one more blissful than any Chuckie has up to now been able to cultivate with peers of his own species. Naturally, he wants to keep Bingo as a pet, but since Chuckie's father, Hal (David Rasche), hates animals, Chuckie must make sure Bingo stays a well-guarded secret. An NFL placekicker, Hal is subsequently traded to Green Bay and the family has to relocate on short notice. Bingo is abandoned, and Chuckie rendered heartbroken and friendless.

But all is not quite lost. The resourceful Chuckie leaves a trail of urine leading from Colorado to Wisconsin, which enables the lovesick Bingo to beat a path in pursuit of his new master. A wacky road narrative ensues, as Bingo encounters all manner of improbable travail from imprisonment to hospitalization during his cross-country trek. All this foolishness culminates when Chuckie is taken hostage and Bingo -- whose underdeveloped canine brain doesn't keep him from knocking repeatedly on doors, tapping out Morse code, or looking Chuckie up in the Green Bay phone book -- must singlehandedly negotiate his release, and the arrest of his captives.

The stunning proficiency with tools on the part of the eponymous mutt is an interesting motif in Bingo, if anything about Bingo is interesting at all. Some anthopomorphism is to be expected in a movie of Bingo's genre, which must confront a tricky problem: how to focus its narrative around a character that lacks human consciousness. But Bingo takes this privilege entirely too far.

The sovereign of the boy-and-his-dog movie, 1974's Benji, copes with the problem in fabulously interesting ways. For instance, shots from Benji's point of view allow the audience's grasp of spoken language to stand in for the dog's lack thereof, which creates an effortless suspension of disbelief when Benji seems to understand English sentences. Benji often appears to know things he couldn't possibly -- the amazing pooch pops open a can of pudding, works an intercom (!), and figures out what a handgun is used for before he's ever seen one fired.

Rarely, though, do these feats give Benji the air of a human in a dog's body, as happens over and over in Bingo's case. The earlier movie generally provides an alibi, an alternative interpretation for what looks like supercanine intelligence. When Benji flips the intercom switch and barks into the intercom's microphone, it's a lucky but plausible accident. Does it seem ridiculous that Benji can open cans? Sure -- but then again, a dog will do just about anything for a little chow.

When Bingo operates a steering wheel on a driving-simulation video game, on the other hand, no such alibis are forthcoming. He's simply a dog who knows how to drive.

This sort of gag is awfully easy to do, and because of it Bingo renounces most of what makes animal-protagonist movies fun to watch. In fact, Bingo's handful of good scenes usually have less to do with the dog (though he is, admittedly, wicked cute) than with humans who struggle with their own inability to manipulate tools.

The movie's best joke? At one point the plot calls for Bingo to make a nighttime jail break by running past a guard tower, and his escape is assured when the tower guard pointing a shotgun into the dark calls out, "halt" -- and thereby drops the lamp he was holding between his teeth.

This moment summarizes the one idea that the movie consistently, and unproductively, returns to: that it's possible to divest intelligence from humanness, either by making dogs smart or by making people dumb. Sure, it's possible, but if you dig dog movies and you're looking for interesting, kitchy fun, you're better off sticking with the original. The best thing I can say about Bingo is that it reminded me of how cool Benji is.

Cindy Williams probably deserves better, though.





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