True-life tale skirts the edge of implausibility but is salvaged by strong perfs

Alpha Dog

on January 12, 2007 by Francesca Dinglasan
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What starts off as another seeming teenboy-targeted flick celebrating would-be gangbangers becomes a more interesting docudrama about a kidnapping turned tragic in Nick Cassavetes' Alpha Dog. Based on the true tale of Southern Californian drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood and events surrounding the abduction of a rival's younger brother, the cinematic adaptation of the sordid story appears to take great dramatic liberties, but much of them to absorbing effect.

Hollywood's big-screen incarnation is Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a local drug dealer and the head of a San Gabriel Valley gang of testosterone-pumped, low-level thugs that includes Frankie (Justin Timberlake), Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) and Tiko (Fernando Vargas). The fairly affluent group spends most of its time hanging out, drinking and partying, until a disruption one night from Jake (an impassioned Ben Foster) changes their leader's — and therefore the gang's — priorities. Because Jake is not only unable to repay a huge drug-related debt, but is actually combative and disrespectful to Johnny, all-out war between the two is declared. Jake makes the first move by trashing Johnny's strangely uncharacteristic modernist home. Johnny retaliates by nabbing Jake's half-brother Zack (Anton Yelchin), a guileless 15-year-old who admires his much tougher older sibling and is eager to fit in.

From this narrative turn, Alpha Dog begins to emphasize its basis on “actual events” by indicating a running count of the witnesses to Zack's kidnapping. Cassavetes is skillful at creating a plausible scenario in which not one of what ultimately totals 38 witnesses come forward during the abduction. In the atmosphere of non-stop parties and Zack's own indulgence in the booze and girls during his three-day captivity, the reality of the criminality of the act doesn't occur to anyone involved — that is, until Johnny learns about the likelihood of hard prison time. Faced with the consequences of his impromptu offense, Johnny belatedly decides to wipe out the damning evidence of his crime, bringing the series of events to their fatal conclusion.

Cluttered with melodrama and, at times, what looks to be a glamorization of the world of imitation gang culture, Alpha Dog is not without its obvious shortcomings. What pushes these faults to the background are a handful of standout performances, perhaps most notably Foster's, who burns the screen with the energy of his unchecked rage one moment, only to change gears by portraying a passionately devoted brother the next. Also delivering on the goods are Hirsch, who embodies Truelove's drive to maintain dominance, and a surprisingly consistent Timberlake, who attempts to serve as the last refuge of decency as the overseer and eventual friend of the kidnapped victim. Superstar cameos by Sharon Stone as Zack's overprotective but frantically loving mother and Bruce Willis as Johnny's enabling father work to bookend the film's young ensemble cast. Distributor: Universal
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin, Shawn Hatosy, Ben Foster, Fernando Vargas, Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis
Director/Screenwriter: Nick Cassavetes
Producers: Sidney Kimmel and Chuck Pacheco
Genre: Crime drama
Rating: R for pervasive drug use and language, strong violence, sexuality and nudity
Running time: 125 min.
Release date: January 12, 2007

Tags: Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin, Shawn Hatosy, Ben Foster, Fernando Vargas, Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis Director/Screenwriter: Nick Cassavetes Producers: Sidney Kimmel and Chuck Pacheco Genre: Crime drama
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