Universal // 2007 // 118 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // May 23rd, 2007
One crime. 3 days. 38 witnesses.
Here's a film that seems to ask the question: who's more dangerous, the criminal or the coward? Although teen angst is certainly nothing new to our culture, the rampant spread of a fatalistic view among the young people living within nation's richest communities bears renewed analysis. Given that, Alpha Dog isn't so much an exploration into a crime as it is a peek into the effects of the parental and communal apathy upon the young. A few of the smart ones will rise above it, but most will wallow, desperate to find a sense of self-worth, even if it means posing as wannabe "gangstas."
Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch, Lords of Dogtown) has it all -- a lavish Social home, all the attending accessories, and an entourage of yes-boys at his beck and call; and heâ€™s only 19. Still, what Johnny needs most is respect, but he can't seem to buy that, not even from his drug-dealing father (Bruce Willis, Live Free or Die Hard), a little-league coach who uses Johnny to peddle the weed. Johnny's house is always overflowing with dope, drink, and parasitic "friends," but none of this can provide the sense of self-worth that he truly desires. As such, this "alpha dog" backhands and berates his cronies, all except the unwieldy Jake (Ben Foster, Six Feet Under), who isn't so impressed by Johnny's threats, yet who does owe him a chunk of cash. Their war of words escalates over the matter until Johnny kidnaps and ransoms Jake's younger half-brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin, Huff). But 15-year-old Zack finds being a hostage isn't so bad, what with the nonstop flow of booze, bud, and babes. But when Jake finds out his beloved half-brother is in the clutches of his adversary, his threats force the alpha dog to make his foe rue the day they ever crossed paths.
Alpha Dog is a real mixed-breed, a mongrel of moviemaking that wants to emulate the likes of Bully and River's Edge yet doesn't want to commit itself to any official message, meaning, or moral. Itâ€™s supposedly "inspired by true events" -- the 1999 case of Jesse James Hollywood and his part in the abduction and death of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz. Filmmaker Nick Cassavetes gained access to the FBI files and purportedly was able to recreate the events of the crime accurately. Somewhere along the way, though, he took his eye off the crime aspect, electing to focus on the kids, their partying, and their individual insecurities and ineffectual natures that resulted in a damning murder that cost each of them their own lives, so to speak. While the actual events involve very frantic parents -- the Markowitzes, in particular -- Cassavetes' film spends scant time with them and instead follows the kids and their presumed ability to do as they please in a community that has agreed to look the other way.
NBC's Dateline program delved deeply into this story on a couple of occasions and painted a different picture of the Markowitzes. While the film's Zack unabashedly disrespects his parents, the real-life boy hasn't been portrayed as being so defiant, and had actually agreed to respond to any messages sent by his folks to a pager they had given him. Perhaps for dramatic measure Cassavetes had Zack and his parents have a falling out because it would serves as a more tantalizing prelude to his impending kidnapping; if the film was "inspired" by facts, then taking a bit of artistic license is to be expected. But the truly missed opportunity is that the movie, like its entourage of crybaby characters, never steps forward to make its point, choosing to duck and hide any social assertions and the accountability that would come with them. So it's an excursion into a pot-and-beer-intoxicated romp where a bunch of loadies hurl f-bombs and verbal "bitch" slaps as they slip deeper and deeper into a situation they're incapable of fully comprehending. They continue to take part in the exploits, led by Truelove, yet never determine to stand up and make known why they foolishly follow him. Why won't they take a stand? Why don't they notify the authorities themselves? Why do they continue to let the undersized Truelove command them into such a reckless and ultimately reprehensible act? We don't know because these characters are not enabled to tell us. And by this, Cassavetes seems to cower in the hall bathroom (not unlike Johnny Truelove) to avoid positing any conclusions or passing judgments on the perpetrators, as if he himself fears some sort of retribution for ratting them out. Instead, he allows the viewer to answer these questions, so that he can proclaim, "you said it, not me." In this regard, then, Cassavetes seems to have chickened out and, ironically, that fits with what we see within the characters of Alpha Dog.
This isn't to imply Alpha Dog merely shivers and piddles itself. The film is generally well crafted, visually, and does employ some interesting devices, such as textually noting dates, times, and even the various witnesses that brushed by Truelove and his boys. The actors are all quite good, although these aren't the sort of characters with whom you'd want to spend much time with (and the 118-minute experience here really pushes the limits of tolerance). The incessant language and piss-and-moan posturing is tiresome, although its certainly the reality for some out there. Emile Hirsch as Truelove is quite effective as the annoying ringleader, one that was ripe to be bitch-slapped himself by any one or more of his inexplicably hapless hangers-on. Of course, most of the hype for this picture was the inclusion of pop star and wardrobe flunky Justin Timberlake. Thankfully, this 'N Sync alum demonstrates he has a glimmer of acting potential, yet he'd do well for himself by taking notes from Mark Wahlberg. The former "Marky Mark" use roles in films like Boogie Nights, Three Kings, and The Perfect Storm to effectively distance himself from his Funky Bunch image and any typecasting that could result. For Timberlake, his acting aspirations would likely be best served to escape the tabloid realm of Super Bowl snafus and white-rap sassiness to pursue some truly meaty roles. That said, youngster Anton Yelchin is to be applauded for effectively upstaging the entire cast with his largely convincing performance as Zack. While his early outbursts are far too feigned, he does his best work here as he cautiously settles into the party atmosphere provided by his captors and offers an honestly heart-wrenching appeal before it's all over.
Serving more as set dressing than anything else are notables Bruce Willis, Harry Dean Stanton, and Sharon Stone (who has the dubious distinction of wearing some of the worst weight-gain facial appliances ever seen on the silver screen). Willis and Stanton do well in establishing the ill-mannered upbringing of young Truelove, but Stone's characterization as Zack's mother seems bipolar and disaffecting. None of these accomplished actors get the opportunity to do anything of significance, turning their participation into nothing more than a marquee appeal.
Universal delivers Alpha Dog in high definition exclusively on the HD DVD format. The 1080p / VC-1 encoded transfer, however, is quite a disappointment. Detail levels are inconsistent with some scenes showing the potential of the enhanced format and others looking as unimpressive as the Standard Definition transfer found on the flipside of this combo disc. Color saturation varies as does contrast and, on the whole, the images wanders in and out of HD coherence much the same as the alternately stoned and sober characters. The audio is presented in Dolby TrueHD, a mix that makes the most of the hip-hop laced score and also manages to keep all surround channels active and engaged. Extras on the disc are few (the film didn't do well at the box office and Universally is understandably reticent to invest too much more in the home video offerings). Matching the same that was included in the SD DVD release, you'll find a brief promo piece, A Cautionary Tale: The Making of 'Alpha Dog', a 10-minute quickie that doesn't offer much depth. Oddly, yet characteristically, Universal has elected to ignore inclusion of a trailer or TV spots. As for exclusive content, the Witness Timeline content found as a standalone bonus on the SD disc is limply integrated here in faux-interactivity via the U-Control feature. With this, you will be presented with pop-up pieces of fictionalized details of the crime and its perpetrators that, again, avoids making any conclusions and sadly avoids the actual case's events entirely.
But, hey, if you want to hang out, party, and posture with these posers, then maybe Alpha Dog will give you that chance to pretend your part of a real-life urban underground.
Ultimately, Alpha Dog strays off the paper and proceeds to crap in the middle of the room. With better handling and encouragement, this pup could have performed much better and would have gained far more "attaboy" accolades. Instead, it can only be scorned and shooed outside.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Featurette: A Cautionary Tale: The Making of 'Alpha Dog'
* U-Control: Witness Timeline
* Official Site