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Top of the World (1997) Review

Top of the World was directed by Sidney J. Furie (Iron Eagle, Gable and Lombard), written by Bart Madison, and stars Peter Weller (Naked Lunch, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns), Tia Carrere (Lilo & Stitch, Easter Sunday), Dennis Hopper (Swing Vote, Easy Rider), Martin Kove (VFW, Traded), David Alan Grier (In Living Color, Dance Flick), Peter Coyote (Patch Adams, Random Hearts), Joe Pantoliano (Bad Boys for Life, The Final Terror), and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Sky Sharks, The Phantom). It follows a recently paroled ex-cop and his wife as they fight with both sides of a standoff in a Vegas casino.

The Plot: As far as Die Hard knockoffs go, Top of the World comes as something of a surprise in the plot department. While the overall story is essentially the same as the majority of these films, there’s some real effort in trying to create an ever-changing series of turns, and this works decently well.

Shortly after being released from prison, ex-officer Mercer (Weller) gets picked up by his begrudging wife Rebecca (Carrere) to stop in Vegas for a quick divorce. If that sounds rough, just wait for when they get there. Madison replicates the wrong place, wrong time circumstances well here, as the fledgling couple picks the “top of the world casino” to settle their differences at; it’s a sketchy place, as owner Atlas (Hopper), advisor Vince (Pantoliano), and financier Doc (Coyote) seem to deal with customers getting screwed more often than most casinos. To top it off (pun if you want it), Carl (Kove) and his crew are about to execute a heist in that same location.

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Instead of being complacent with the formula, the script adds in the cops sooner rather than later, as Detective Augustus (Grier) is already investigating a problem when Mercer and Rebecca win big in a throwaway gamble, which results in the casino being surrounded by Captain Hefter’s (Tagawa) men before long. There are a lot of parts, and not all of them move like the classic this is inspired by, as the cop plot doesn’t add up too much and the twists are too obvious to hit correctly. However, by the time the setup is over with and the action is underway, the pieces are in place for a slightly above-average B-movie plot.

The Characters: Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the same kind of effort went into humanizing the participants of this particular series of events, as the best of the bunch are passable, and the rest are entirely forgettable.

Mercer is tired. Tired because of his four years in prison (it’s alluded that he took down crooked cops, but mostly glossed over), tired of Rebecca’s requests for divorce, and inevitably tired of the chaos soon to surround him. He’s got the requisite dry humour and skill with a gun, owing to his time on the force, but other than Weller’s respectable performance, he’s not much of a character. Romantic strain is taken care of since Rebecca is currently not only working for Atlas, but she’s sleeping with him too. Why him? Who knows – but this at least adds a personal conflict to the proceedings.

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All of the bad guys are the kind of sleazebags that audiences love to hate. They’re nothing special in this realm, but Atlas’s threats of the casino’s unmarked employees coming back to bite anyone who crosses him, his mogging of Mercer, and convincing a patron to kill himself instead of going home in debt are enough to make him despicable. Vince is a perfunctory quiet right hand, and Carl is, of course, only after money. The heist may not go off without a hitch, but the job gets done regardless.

Despite being a fourth party in what’s normally a three-party game, which brings some hope of characterization, Augustus and Hefter are just generic cops that get sidelined in the grand scheme. With a rewrite, they wouldn’t be in Top of the World, but they round out the cast agreeably, as do the others; largely due to the wonderful cast selected to play these cutouts.

The Action: Since Top of the World was produced by Millennium Films (formerly Nu Image), one should expect plenty of action scenes that boast huge explosions and plenty of stunts. Furie delivers in this department, although these setpieces could’ve been strung together with a bit more between them.

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Carl’s robbery doesn’t invite the audience to expect anything special, as he and his crew don’t do much until they get to the cash reserves except take out a guard or two along the way. A burst of energy comes as they try to make their escape, as the cops are onto them by the time they make it to their truck in the parking garage (I wonder where that idea came from), which results in a terrific chase around the Vegas strip with Mercer on top of the truck, sans crooks.

What makes this work better than most chases is the usage of more perspectives than usual. Coverage comes from Mercer’s perspective, the driver’s perspective, the passenger’s perspective, and from afar. No angle is left behind here, except the robbers.

A lot of what comes next still revolves around Carl and his crew, as Top of the World places its sights on their escape. The gunfights escalate from serial engagements with tired guards to trigger-happy cops. They aren’t special sequences, but watching four armed men pretend to be linen specialists only to be forced to fight on a tiny train ride around the ceiling of the casino isn’t the most boring thing I could come up with.

Setpieces slow down in terms of frequency from the 50-minute mark, but Furie makes up for it with a solid final series of fights. Naturally, Rebecca gets captured during one of them, forcing Mercer to fight to the top to reach Atlas – but what helps is the eventual assistance of Augustus and the inclusion of Doc and his take no prisoners attitude. Top of the World doesn’t defy what’s tried and true, much like its previous action beats, but it hits them harder than most.

The Technics: Around the time of their rebranding to Millennium Films, the production company behind Top of the World had moved up from DTV works to theatrically released ones. Obviously, these releases were token ones to begin with, but Top of the World fits in with the step-up.

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Vestiges of this change are still present in their films from around the late 90s and early 2000s, such as the rather generic direction from Furie which feels out of place in a movie with a slew of great actors and solid setpieces like this one. His editor, Alain Jakubowicz (Seized, Deadly Outbreak), doesn’t do the best job of keeping the helmer’s scenes in check either, as the nearly 100-minute runtime is felt during portions of the middle. Another wobbly element is the dialogue. More accurately – the dubbing, which never quite fits with the soundscape of the casino, and sometimes doesn’t even fit with the actors’ voices.

Normal points of attention for these kinds of films stay in focus, as the incredible stunt work coordinated by Richard E. Butler (TRON, Halloween H20) is paid the most attention, especially during the chase in the first 30 minutes. That only goes so far when the movie looks cheap, but this one has the benefit of location shoots, lending heaps of credibility to everything happening on screen. So to do the sound effects, which pop amongst a sea of background casino noise.

Top of the World may not be the best Die Hard clone, but it has much more visible effort than most, even when its shortcomings are present. Add in a terrific cast and out comes a pleasurable gem.

Top of the World is available on Digital platforms including, at least in some markets, Tubi. If it isn’t, FilmTagger can recommend something similar for you.

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