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kidnap in Alpha Dog

holding back in Alpha Dog


Alpha Dog
cast: Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Shawn Hatosy, Sharon Stone, and Bruce Willis

writer and director: Nick Cassavetes

118 minutes (R) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon
There have been many films that attempt to essay the hideous American sub-culture of drugs, gun, sex, and gangsta rap worship by over-privileged white middle-class teenagers acting out their violent MTV-generated fantasies. Such material is ripe for exploitation, but Nick Cassavetes tries hard (and fails only occasionally) to steer clear of sensationalism and portray events in a calm, detached manner. His use of faux interviews, captions, and split-screen techniques helps highlight the very real horror associated with the cold-blooded murder of a 15-year-old boy.

Alpha Dog is based on the true-life events surrounding a young Los Angeles drug dealer, Jesse James Hollywood, who spearheaded the kidnapping and eventual execution of the younger brother of a man who owed him money. Unaware of the danger he was in, the abducted youth hung out with his captors, partying and having a good time, until inevitably the situation turned sour.

Emile Hirsch plays Johnny Truelove, image-obsessed gang leader and drug dealer. His role is vital to the film, but Hirsch is simply too bland and lacking in any sense of genuine threat to carry it off. At no point was I afraid of his character; at times I actually felt that if someone had just given him a good slap, he would have gone running home to his daddy and the tragedy might have been avoided. This lack of charisma in such a pivotal role damages the film, and ultimately lets down its good intentions.

On the other hand, this weak casting gives others the opportunity to shine. Justin Timberlake is much better than expected in the role of Frankie, the edgy young man charged with looking after the willing hostage, Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin). The two form a bond as they party together; unfortunately Timberlake isn't a strong enough actor to convey the emotional turmoil experienced by Frankie towards the end of the film. But it is a promising debut, and his energy and willingness to commit to the role help carry him through.

Ben Foster is more patchy as the victim's borderline psychotic brother, Jake, tending to rely on overblown gestures rather than offering any kind of subtlety or nuance. There's a huge misstep when, during a fight at a party, Jake suddenly transforms into Jet Li, performing amazing martial arts moves to combat three or four assailants. It's a silly scene, and highlights the film's flaws.

Sharon Stone is better as the victim's mother, and an interesting theme is that the adults are complicit in the behaviour of their out-of-control offspring. Truelove's father is also a drug dealer, and the parents of other characters drop them off at drug parties in cheap hotel rooms, telling them to "have a nice time" before driving away, seemingly oblivious to what their children are getting up to. It's an interesting element of the screenplay, and I'd like to have seen it examined at greater depth.

The material is strong enough that these flaws do not ruin the film, but instead of a terrifying record of a horrific crime set in a soulless yet recognisable milieu, we have too many performers who come across as playacting rather than really inhabiting the roles: if the acting had been stronger (apart from Timberlake), the film would have possessed a lot more power.

The film's ending is abrupt: there's no emotional payoff for Jake Mazursky; his character is forgotten about soon after promising to single-mindedly track down Truelove and kill him. Instead we have the usual captions telling us about who served what sentence and where and when they were captured.

In conclusion, Alpha Dog is not exactly the great film it could have been, but it's certainly worth your time, and the story is one that needed telling. While watching, I was captivated, and it was only after the film ended that I began to think about its weaknesses.

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