Americans love to be on lists. We read about celebrity best dressed lists and look to see who is on the latest A-list in Hollywood. With all this fascination with being on a list there is one listing that no one wants to be on, the FBI’s ten most wanted criminal list. Around the year 2000 real life criminal Jesse James Hollywood had the dubious distinction of being the youngest person ever on that most known list criminal lists. He was barely twenty years old but Hollywood had already amassed a fortune in illegal activities including insurance fraud, drug dealing and rapidly escalated to murder. When you combine youthful notoriety based on such heinous actions an it is almost as if the story is calling out to be made into a film. Films ‘based on actual events; usually do well with audiences since they are the modern version of the true crime novels from the 1900’s. The latest flick by Nick Cassavetes, ‘Alpha Dog’ has promise but seems to just miss the mark by a little bit. There is a lot of potential here; trying to be raw and edgy but if anything it tries too hard to live up to other films of similar genres.
To paraphrase the old Dragnet television show the names here have been changed to protect the not so innocent. Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is a fairly successful drug dealer operating in the late 1990’s. While not on the international level as local dealers go he has made his mark. His illegal business did well enough for Johnny to surround himself with the usual sycophants, Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake) and Elvis Schmidt (Shaun Hatosy). Frankie is the class clown turned semi official court jester for Johnny as well as growing his own crop of pot. Elvis is the much needed errand boy willing to do just about any task assigned by Johnny employed to work off his own drug debt. Of course Johnny also has a girl friend, Angela Holden (Olivia Wilde) who is usually up for about anything possible. Things are pretty good for the boys living a life of sex, drugs and rock music but things are about to take a very dark turn. Volatile Jewish skin head Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) is about $1,200 in debt to Johnny for substances rendered. While most people addicted to drugs are unstable Jake is a lot more than one toke over the line. When he refuses to settle the drug debt Johnny feels that he is forced to take more drastic action than usual. Johnny decides that he and his crew would kidnap Jake’s younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) to force payment. Zack is a naïve boy overly sheltered by his over protective mother Olivia (Sharon Stone). The terror of being adducted soon gives way to enjoying his forced captivity. After all the boy is away from mom playing video games, doing drugs, drinking and surrounded by a bevy of beautiful and overly willing girls. It’s not as if Zack had anything remotely resembling normal back home. Having a brother who is a tattooed Jewish neo-Nazi is strange enough. Zack isn’t held in the usual dank basement most movie kidnapping involves. For Zack it is neigh on paradise for any teenaged boy. He begins to hope that the money is never paid and he can always stay at Johnny’s home. Zack goes beyond the Helsinki syndrome and becomes fast friends with his main guard, Frankie. In an extremely rare moment of reality Johnny realizes that he and his friends are facing a serious kidnapping charge and they just might face life in prison. The only solution is to get rid of Zack. While reluctant to kill the enthusiastic boy survival is a very powerful motivation.
Writer-director Nick Cassavetes has a lot to live up to, a lot more than most in his profession. He is the son of another writer-director, John Cassavetes and award winning actress Gena Rowlands. While his father has secured a place in cinematic history for his unique style the younger Cassavetes is still growing in his crafts. He has tried his hand in romance with ‘The Notebook’ and action with ‘John Q’ and now has moved on to the action comedy. The main fault of the film is it tries to be more than it is. The corruption of innocence is a time tested theme but here it comes across as a hybrid between ‘Animal House’ and ‘Goodfellas’. He does structure the film well in three basic acts. In the first the audience gets to see the set up, the party life style of Johnny and his friends and how Johnny has to protect his image of alpha dog of his little pack. He can’t let some punk refuse to pay him what he is owed. In the second act we see the moral disintegration of young Zack. The old story of the nice boy finally freed of any restraints now is free to go wild. In the third act things turn darker has the pack has to get rid of the boy whose testimony could put them in jail for the rest of their lives. Nick Cassavetes has obviously inherited a lot of talent but just needs a chance to hone his skills. The pacing is right on the money with the possible exception towards the end. There is a feeling that Cassavetes tacked on a few gratuitous scenes exploit a bit more of the story line. He certainly has his father’s eye for framing a shot; every moment of the film is well painted.
The cast of this film seems to have been scientifically designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. There are actors here that will bring in both those who prefer established Hollywood as well as young, pop stars with names familiar to the younger set. Some have roles that are little more than cameos but it is fun to try to pick them all out. There is Bruce Willis as Sonny Truelove, Johnny’s father and Harry Dean Stanton as Cosmo, his usual sleazy persona. For the youngsters out there of course there is Justin Timberlake. Now that he has brought sexy back with his musical career he has taken on the movies. He does well and is smart in taking a role like Frankie. This gives him a chance to showcase his natural comic abilities mixed with some experience in emotional depth. He really nails the conflict Frankie feels about the ultimate solution of having to kill a boy he has befriended. Emile Hirsch performance is wonderfully over the top. He plays the drug dealer more like a rock star on break than the usual movie dealer. Other notable youth oriented cast members include Olivia Wilde from the ‘OC’ and Amanda Seyfried, recently from Showtime’s ‘Big Love’ as well as Indy favorite Dominique Swain.
Universal Studios brings this film to DVD with their usual attention to details. The mastering is very well done. There is a Pan & Scan version available but really, why bother. The widescreen version is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 video. The colors are bright almost at the level of most music videos. The Dolby 5.1 audio is pounding and fills the room. For extras there is a behind the scenes featurette called ‘A Cautionary Tale’ that details the process of turning this strange true story into a film. There is also a timeline of witnesses to help reinforce the ‘based on actual events’ aspect. In all this is an imperfect film that is worth the viewing.