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"ALPHA DOG"
(2007) (Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A group of wannabe suburban gangsters must deal with the repercussions of kidnapping an associate's 15-year-old brother.
PLOT:
It's 1999, and young drug dealer Johnny Truelove (EMILE HIRSCH) rules his California neighborhood with utmost authority. Among his followers is Frankie Ballenbacher (JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE), Tiko (FERNANDO VARGAS), and their collective yes-man, whipping boy Elvis Schmidt (SHAWN HATOSY). Johnny gets his drugs from his dad, Sonny Truelove (BRUCE WILLIS), whose older accomplice, Cosmo Gadabeeti (HARRY DEAN STANTON), likes giving Johnny a hard time about girls such as Angela Holden (OLIVIA WILDE). Giving him a different sort of hard time is junkie and resident hothead Jake Mazursky (BEN FOSTER) who doesn't bow down to Johnny's authority despite owing him money.

That leads to some tense encounters between them, eventually leading to Johnny and his gang impulsively kidnapping Jake's brother Zack (ANTON YELCHIN). The 15-year-old doesn't mind, however, since his parents, Olivia (SHARON STONE) and Butch (DAVID THORNTON), have recently found his drug paraphernalia. He obviously enjoys hanging out with the older guys and smoking pot with them rather than dealing with them. Moreover, most of the drug crew -- especially Frankie -- take a liking to the kid, who's eventually introduced to others in their circle such as fellow pothead Keith Stratten (CHRISTOPHER MARQUETTE) and Susan Hartunian (DOMINIQUE SWAIN), who isn't happy once she learns Zack's been kidnapped.

With Zack's family dealing with his disappearance, Sonny tries to pressure Johnny into admitting he's involved. Realizing they may have gone past the point of no return and could face serious and possibly life-long repercussions for their act, the young drug dealer tries to figure out their best option, a choice that might not sit well with the others and especially Zack.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Everyone knows the old saying about old dogs and new tricks, but that inability to learn doesn't apply to puppies, and it certainly doesn't apply to human kids and teens. In fact, they're so absorbent -- at least in terms of pop culture -- that they must be related in some fashion to that lumberjack who used to adorn a certain paper towel brand's packaging.

Such sponge-like capacities are often annoying but usually harmless (think of bell-bottoms, huge "Afro" haircuts and any other briefly "hot" look that quickly turns ridiculous and is then shunned, sometimes to return yet again). It's when the kids -- regardless of being urban, suburban or rural -- mindlessly adopt certain lifestyles and mindsets that things can get precarious.

One of the more dominant ones of the past decade has been "gangsta rap," where kids emulate the thug life advertised in rap music videos and such. Wearing their baggy pants, sideways caps and the obligatory bling, they start to think they're real urban hoodlums, a mentality exacerbated by the easy access to weaponry and parents who aren't around or don't care what their kids are doing.

That's the point explored in "Alpha Dog," writer/director Nick Cassavetes' look at some unsupervised, spoiled, and/or delusional kids who get in over their heads while pretending to be thugs. Intriguing, filled with non-stop objectionable material, and sometimes being so over the top that it becomes unintentionally funny, the film is based on the real-life story of Jesse James Hollywood.

Notorious not only for kidnapping and murdering an associate's younger brother but also for being one of the youngest people ever on the FBI's Most Wanted list, Hollywood is currently on trial for the heinous act (and as of this writing, legal wrangling is still occurring regarding whether the film's theatrical release will be postponed or canceled outright).

Not being intimately familiar with that or the real life incident, I can't attest to the film's accuracy and/or any artistic license with the truth (beyond changing the main character's name to Johnny Truelove). Accordingly, the rest of the review will focus on the picture from an artistic standpoint and how well it works on any level.

Cassavetes gets to the film's thematic core right away, showing old home movie clips of joyous kids, all set to a somewhat sad rendering of "Over the Rainbow." The clips eventually include one boy aiming a toy gun directly at the home movie camera, and another giving "the finger," two picked-up behaviors that have already corrupted them to some obvious but also unknown degree.

That then segues into an interview featuring Bruce Willis playing the eventual murder defendant's drug-supplying dad, saying that it all boils down to parenting. Little do we know at the time, but he's one of the chief problems, a point soon demonstrated as Emile Hirsch plays his son, a drug kingpin with a thriving business and devoted followers, including those played by Shawn Hatosy and Justin Timberlake. They hang out, smoke pot, play video games, cuss like sailors, cavort with the "bitches," and watch gangsta rap music videos, external stimulants that have already overtaken their otherwise idle minds.

Thus, when a drugged-up associate (played with ever-increasing menace by Ben Foster) doesn't bow down before the Tony Montana wannabe (to whom he owes money), later breaks into his house, and defaces it in a scatological manner, there's only one thing to do. But the thug isn't polite enough to be home when the revenge crew comes calling, so Truelove's posse does the next best or at least available thing, they kidnap his 15-year-old brother (Anton Yelchin).

The only problem is, most of the guys kind of like the kid who quickly enjoys his abduction since it means he gets to hang out with the cool guys, smoke pot, and have a "Wild Things" type threesome in a pool with some skinny-dipping honeys, the type of which only exist in the movies.

Cassavetes doesn't hold back in showing the various aspects of these kids' mega decadence or how that blinds them to the naivety and stupidity of their acts. But the filmmaker occasionally ratchets it up to such an intense degree that it becomes hilarious in a bad B-movie sort of way.

It doesn't help that he seemingly feels obligated to give the drama something of a documentary feel (where thirty-some witnesses are named and numbered by onscreen titles whenever we see them, which also holds true for locales and the current time we're visiting them), or randomly include split-screen footage for no apparent reason and certainly not to any sort of great effect.

It's only when the thug-lite brigade actually decides to deal with their problem, and some moral issues consequently arise, that the film finally exudes some much-needed gravitas. Since we haven't really had any reason to enjoy the company of these mostly universally despicable sorts, however, the impact of what follows is lessened (despite the filmmaker throwing in some sudden and last minute, "I'm gonna change my life for the better" revelations and resolutions that are supposed to help endear the potential victim to us).

While Yelchin is otherwise okay in that role, Foster steals every scene he's in with his madman personality, and Hirsch isn't exactly believable in terms of having such a loyal following (which, I guess, is sort of the point), it's Timberlake and his performance as a wannabe thug who grows a partial conscience that's the most surprising. Decked out with enough tattoos to consider body advertising, the former 'N Syncer and current solo artist shows a surprising amount of range. While not perfect, some fine-tuning could possibly turn him into a good actor.

Unfortunately, the film won't get those chances for improvement. Aside from Timberlake's role, Cassavetes never manages to make these unsavory characters compelling enough (as has oft occurred under the watchful eyes of the Scorseses and Tarantinoes of the film world) to make us care about them or the film like we should. The uneven "Alpha Dog" deserves a good rolled-up newspaper whack on the nose to make it behave better, meaning it only rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed January 9, 2007 / Posted January 12, 2007


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