ALPHA DOG


R, 122 min, 2006

Director: Nick Cassavetes
Writer: Nick Cassavetes
Stars: Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin

Alpha Dog is a fact-inspired youth crime saga that elicited from me a dramatic chain reaction of opinions: after the first half-hour or thereabouts, my investment shifted from mild interest and quickly gave way to apathy, followed by contempt, interspersed with unintentional laughter – to say nothing of my eventual lamentation over the two hours of my life I will never recover.

The film stars Emile Hirsch as Johnny Truelove, a young “wangster” (wannabe gangster, for any novices out there) who treats his friends like his dogs, greases his associates for unpaid debts, and appears somewhat to take his cues from Scarface (a cocaine-engulfed Al Pacino poster hangs on his wall; that film’s message is lost on this loser). When a drugged-up business pal named Jake (a superb Ben Foster) can’t pay him back, a vendetta of sorts is declared, beginning first with his enemy’s violation, robbery and defacation (yes) of Johnny’s house, then resulting in a retaliation that gradually (too gradually?) snowballs into chaos.

Johnny and his closest associates grab fate by the horns one day when Jake’s 15-year-old brother (Anton Yelchin), who appears to be heading down the same path, is in a prime position to be kidnapped. They take him, buddy up to him, and since he’s got nowhere else to go, he goes along with it (this is the most extreme case of Stockholm Syndrome ever filmed!).

This film starts out decently enough, but eventually begins to feel like a bad After School Special playing at grit. I just couldn’t take Hirsch or his co-horts seriously, as they cursed up and down, and had open and almost anonymous sex and aimed weapons at each other.

The ordinarily talented ensemble cast, which appears to be taking leave of their abilities, includes Hirsch, Justin Timberlake (see him in Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan instead), Bruce Wills, Sharon Stone, Vincent Kartheiser, Shawn Hatosy, Dominique Swain, Lukas Haas and former ER star Alex Kingston – however, it is nice to see Harry Dean Stanton in a grizzled old gangster role, even if he looks like death on a Triscuit.

The only good performance lies in the over-the-top histrionics of the ever-reliable Ben Foster as the wild-eyed, drugged-up Jewish neo-Nazi skinhead Jake, who takes umbrage with Johnny in the first place; he’s the film’s sole entertaining element, making a potentially painful experience watchable whenever he’s on-screen. Meanwhile, the plot grows ridiculous: so many people got involved and so many innocent bystanders became witnesses, I was actually laughing as seemingly every bit part and extra was given a subtitle with a witness number.

The film was written and directed by the hit-and-miss Nick Cassavetes, inspired by the true story of “Jesse James Hollywood.” His previous work includes the sad but admirable Nicholas Sparks weepie The Notebook (2004) and the manipulative Denzel Washington hostage-crisis melodrama John Q (2002). He also had a hand in writing Ted Demme’s far superior Scorsese-inspired drug biopic Blow (2001). Here, he sinks further toward the bottom of his own barrel; Scorsese, this ain’t. If anything, his film reminded me somewhat of such strong recent work as Barbara Kopple’sHavoc (2005) and the many takes on the criminal youth sub-culture by Larry Clark (Kids, Bully, and Another Day in Paradise, also featuring Kartheiser) – not in quality, you understand, but in terms of what I’d rather be watching.

As the plot unspooled in R-rated true crime TV movie of the week fashion and the bumbling idiots/would-be criminals and their bubble-brained bimbos became increasingly concerned that “maybe we could get in a lot of trouble,” I just had to shake my head and laugh. They deserved each other. 

Note: One of the biggest questions I get as someone who reviews movies for fun (and out of love and habit) is: How can you sit through the entire running time of a film you know is garbage? My response is two-fold: As an aspiring independent filmmaker, how will I know I’m making good films if I avoid or shun the bad ones? And, as an amateur critic (indeed, my abilities may be greater in the written opinion rather than in the narrative), if I don’t sit there and take it, then I’ll never be able to purge my mind of the painful memory by spewing forth the venom I build up through the film’s duration. All the better to express myself, m’dear. Now then: For a much more intelligent and entertaining take on youth and (semi-) organized crime, I implore you to rent Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow (2003), an incomparably more effective shoe-string budget masterpiece about a sort of Asian mafia in an Orange County high school.

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