A film review by Craig J. Koban



2007, R, 117 mins.

Johnny Truelove: Emile Hirsch / Frankie Ballenbacher: Justin Timberlake / Jake Mazursky: Ben Foster / Zack Mazursky: Anton Yelchin / Elvis: Shawn Hatosy / Olivia Mazursky: Sharon Stone / Sonny Truelove: Bruce Willis / Susan: Dominique Swain

Directed and written by Nick Cassavetes

ALPHA DOG could have been more aptly called STUPID WHITE BOYZ FROM THE HOOD.  The film is about young twenty-something gangstas – circa late 1990’s California – that seem to have grown up worshipping the immoral street code that was prominent in films like Brian DePalma’s SCARFACE. 

Certainly, the utterly wasted youths in the film (and I mean that literally and figuratively) want to be hip-hop criminals with lots of street cred.  However, their main problem – and the most fascinating angle to Nick Cassavetes’ ALPHA DOG – is that these dudes are hopelessly incompetent when it comes to pulling off crimes.   That’s the film's hook that kind of separates it from being just another run-of-the-mill take on degenerate youth crime.  Its would-be criminals are all bark and no bite.  To quote Joe Pesci from CASINO, these guys could "f - - k up a cup of coffee."

This is a gangster film primarily concerned with false facades and the inability of the male bravado to admit when one is incapable of action.  Consider the main hoodlum in the film, Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch).  He thinks he is one bad ass that can intimidate his way through anything.  He’s in his late teens and is a tough, trash talking goodfella that dabbles in high stakes drug dealing.  He has in own pad, his own posse, and an endless supply of women and “product” at his disposal.  He is a teen with delusions of grandeur.  He worships the Hollywood icons of his vocation (he has a gigantic poster of Tony Montoya in his bedroom and he and his cohorts throw out enough f-bombs to even make that SCARFACE baddie blush with envy).

There is one problem with Johnny and his entourage: They are utterly clueless about pulling off certain crimes.  As a matter of fact, when they eventually decide to commit kidnapping as a way to extort a buyer that has failed on his payment, none of the young thugs have any clue that kidnapping is a federal offence that could lead to life in prison.  Furthermore, once they get deep into the act itself, they make such cardinal blunders that they deserve to have their visages appear openly on the next installment of “America’s Dumbest Criminals.”  Certainly, these doped up rejects are so bombed half the time that they really have no concept of the repercussions of their actions, not to mention that they make one of the single largest mistakes of kidnapping:  Never - and I mean never - parade around your hostage all over town all night long in front of literally dozens of eye witnesses that will most likely rat you out later. 

ALPHA DOG should be required viewing for how not to commit a crime.  The stoner punks have the look and attitude of criminals, but when it comes right down to it, they are ditzy amateurs.  Their lifestyle goes to prove that endless partying and binge drinking can lead to foggy flights of fancy that ends up with one making horrific decisions.  On these levels, Cassavetes paints an unrelentingly bleak and unapologetically hostile look of young men that are – most likely – beyond saving.  These are not the type of downtrodden youth that can be taken away from their lives of chronic all-nighters of drinking and sex.  These are men that are so entranced with the iconography of the American gangster that nothing will pull them out.  Not even their own incompetence at being crooks. 

ALPHA DOG is the reality-based story that finds inspiration in the exploits of Jesse James Hollywood, who at one point became the youngest person in the history of the FBI to appear on their Ten Most Wanted list (he was 20 at the time).  He was a very wealthy teen that grew into a world of drug dealing and amassed such a wealth that – by the time he was closing in on his twenties – he was able to buy a $200,000 property in the San Fernando Valley and collection of exotic sports cars.  He lived the life of affluent excess.  One of his clients, Benjamin Markowitz, owed him a relatively small debt of $1200 that he did not pay up to Hollywood.  To make matters worse, Markowitz threatened to leak out a huge insurance scam that Hollywood was involved in.  As result, Hollywood and his goons decided to strike first and kidnapped Benjamin’s younger half-bother, Nicolas.  Nicolas himself was treated remarkably well and his abduction was more or less a few days of socializing, playing video games, and drinking. 

Hollywood called his attorney during the abduction for some consultation, to which he reportedly told him that kidnapping could get him some serious jail time.  Realizing that he could not give his captive back, Hollywood made a dire decision.  On August 12, 2000 he got a few of his men to take Nicolas to the mountains north of Goleta, California where they murdered him and hide the body.  Hindsight would prove that this was a horrendously stupid call on Hollywood’s part (never call your attorney for advice on beating a kidnapping rap and then – after you get bad news – whack the captive).  Even more inane was the fact that the abductors that killed Nicolas passed some hikers on the way through the mountains.  Obviously, they never had the brains to realize that these casual hikers could piece two and two together later. 

Hollywood bailed quickly when the body was discovered.  After being on the run – amazingly – for over five years he was apprehended in Brazil and his trial is scheduled for later in 2007.  His other cohorts have already been tried and convicted, some receiving many years in prison, some doing life, some serving death row sentences.  If anything, Hollywood should be convicted on the grounds of remarkable idiocy. 

Cassavetes’ film is a stridently faithful recreation of the events of the kidnapping and murder.  It’s an extremely dense and layered work; it’s part reconstruction of the key events that unfolded and part fictional dramatization (some names were changed, some characters invented).  The film also takes on the aura of a lurid, pseudo-documentary where witnesses and players are interviewed by a nameless and unidentified reporter.  This technique, combined with Cassavetes’ stylish, unsteady camera shots and quick editing, creates a dark, grungy, and unsavory look at his punks and their lifestyles.  If anything, the fact that the film contains youth at their most vile, repugnant and distasteful is to its ultimate credit.  You may not like any of the characters, per se, on any redeemable level, but Cassavetes and the actors pull it all of with a level of gritty realism and polish. 

Perhaps the film’s sense of explicit and sensationalistic reality stems from the fact that the real life prosecutors opened up all of their files to the film crew, which ended up allowing ALPHA DOG to feel well documented.  This also allowed legal action by the defense attorneys against Cassavetes and the studio.  The attorneys even sought an injunction to not have the film screened at the Sundance Film Festival last year.  Nevertheless, the film screened as planned, but it’s major North American release date was pushed from May 2006 to January 2007.

The film follows the build up to and the eventual crime itself, as well as its grisly aftermath.  We meet Johnny Truelove (Hirsch) and his fellow gangbangers: Frankie Ballenbacher (the surprisingly effective Justin Timberlake) and Elvis Schmidt (Shain Hatosy).  We see the falling out that Johnny has with his customer, Jake Mazursky (played in a chilling and hyperactive performance by the underrated Ben Foster), who owes him money, but won’t pay up.  Eventually, the you know what hits the fan and – within no time – Johnny takes Jake’s younger half-brother, Zach (Anton Yelchin) hostage.  Zach’s parents (especially his overprotective mother, played memorably in a small role by Sharon Stone) desperately fears for the kid’s life.  Meanwhile, Johnny’s father (Bruce Willis) and his grandfather (Harry Dean Stanton) try to steer Johnny right so he does not make a decision that will cost him his life.

Now, you’d think that Zach would be like food thrown to hungry lions in the captivity of Johnny’s men.  Hardly.  Startlingly, Zach welcomes his situation, maybe as a way of rebellion against his self-centered parents.  He’s a good, decent person, but he wants out of the good boy image that his mother and father want him to be at all times.  As a result, Zach grows to kind of worship the lifestyle of his kidnappers.  They offer him things that he could never get in suburbia, like drinking, doing drugs, and getting laid in a threesome with two unattainably attractive girls. 

He grows attached to this freewheeling life of available tramps, marijuana, booze, and – most importantly – no mommy and daddy lecturing him.  Yet, Johnny soon realizes that his kidnapping of Zach was not a smart move.  Seeing that a prison term could result, he decides that he wants Frankie and company to kill the lad and hide the body.  Interestingly, Johnny has a difficult time with the task.  He lives in Johnny’s shadow and only wishes to serve him, but his request leaves him torn and conflicted.  After all, Frankie starts to think that – dammit – Zach is a really cool kid.

The film is at its most invigorating when it deals with all of its lost boys – including the captive – struggling with their individual dilemmas.  None of them are truly likeable, which makes it kind of difficult to really emotionally relate and respond to any of them.  Zach is, arguably, the most decent in the sense that he’s kind of an innocent boy that gets sort of addictive to a destructive lifestyle.  He’s also sympathetic in the sense that he’s led on to believe that his kidnapping is all a fluff piece to get his brother to pay Johnny.  When he realizes his real fate, it’s a tense, utterly disturbing, and emotional scene in the film.  The dynamic here is even more potent with the presence of Frankie, who is not just an unprincipled kid without a heart.  Yes, Frankie has a temper, a potty mouth from hell, and gets involved with all of the wrong people, but he’s not a hellion that wants to murder some poor, defenseless teen.  It’s the relationship between the captor and the captive where ALPHA DOG really shines. 

The performances are – for the most part – excellent, with the possible exception of Hirsch himself as Johnny.  He captures the youth’s frustration and turmoil correctly, but he kind of plays the part a bit too broadly to be taken literally.  He’s not as compelling as he should have been.  Actually, the most memorable characters and performances are from the supporting players.  Justin Timberlake sheds away his musical underpinnings and crafts a poignantly layered portrait of a tragic teen figure that is consumed by a moral compass that conflicts with his duties to his “boss.”  He is ALPHA DOG’S best-written character. 

Anton Yelchin as Zach is also fine at playing a young man that is also swarmed by a lifestyle that he gets lured into for all the wrong reasons.  Two other performances are scene-stealers.  The first is by Ben Foster, who you may remember as a mutant that appeared briefly in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND and as a video game geek in THE PUNISHER.  Here he plays a warped, vengeful, and sociopathic teen that constantly looks like he’s been the crystal meth lab one too many times.  Foster is absolutely riveting as this cranked up pothead.  Even more startling is the work of Sharon Stone in one very short scene where she is interviewed after she has been committed for attempting suicide.  Her few minutes here is the finest acting she’s ever done.

ALPHA DOG loses its way a few times; it’s a bit too long for its own good and it sort of seems somewhat disjointed in its narrative construction.  Yet, Nick Cassavetes is very far removed here from his previous work (he made 2004’s tear-jerking romantic melodrama, THE NOTEBOOK) by crafting a forcefully focused and nuanced look at teen angst and unwholesomeness at its most shocking.  ALPHA DOG is not a fun and entertaining film to watch.  It’s about reprehensible and loathsome thugs that let their lifestyles of filthy debauchery lead them down terrible paths.  Because of this, the film is oftentimes hard to sit through.  Yet, ALPHA DOG is a film of slick production values, solid performances (especially by Ben Foster and Justin Timberlake), and is ultimately unflinching in how it shows the indignity of its youth, gangster lifestyle.  There is no denying the film’s high level of repulsiveness with its repellent characters and subject matter, but the fact that it is all crafted so efficiently is ultimately commendable. 

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