Alpha Dog

Alpha Dog

***

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

"The world ain’t nothing but bitches and money", Ice Cube once postulated. It's a philosophy of life with which the characters of Alpha Dog would no doubt concur.

They do expand on it slightly, though – smoking joints and partying hard in unfeasibly nice houses bought with trust fund money are also integral elements of their hermetically sealed universe. And writer/director Nick Cassavetes takes a fair degree of pleasure in blowing it apart with a smart bomb of a plot, in which a random drug deal gradually spirals out of control for no better reason than these La-La Land brats aren’t half as tough or clever as they think they are.

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Much of the advance buzz about this movie has focused on the presence of Justin Timberlake, taking another step on what seems to be a planned journey from Mr SexyBack to proper act-or. But the centre of the film is Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), the Alpha Dog of the title.

Smart enough to juggle half-a-dozen deals at once, rich enough be installed in a crib several stamp duty brackets up from anything you or I could ever aspire to, he is indeed the king of his particular hill. His court comprises a posse of equally privileged sycophants and would-be gangstas who spend their time between drug deals drinking, getting stoned and watching rap videos whose bling, bravado and misogyny they ape like real-life, unfunny versions of Ali G.

Naturally, this is all bound to end in tears. And the catalyst is one of the outsiders of the group, Jake (Foster, last seen as the winged bloke in X-Men: The Last Stand). Permanently wired on crystal meth, he takes umbrage when Johnny refuses to cut him some slack over a debt. Faced with a challenge to his authority (and the threat of real violence from a character who's an unhealthy combination of druggie, martial arts expert and death metal fan) Johnny reacts by kidnapping Jake’s brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) to use as a bargaining chip.

Johnny’s best mate Frankie (Timberlake) is assigned to babysit the lad and gradually befriends him. Zack is gratified to be accepted into the circle and supplied with beer and babes by Frankie, to the extent that he decides he doesn’t want to be rescued.  But his mum (Sharon Stone) and Johnny’s shady businessman dad Sonny (Bruce Willis) have other ideas. And Johnny is beginning to realise he hasn’t a clue what to do next...

Cassavetes could easily have made all this into a dead serious finger-wagging morality tale of wasted youth. Fortunately, he realises the potential for jet-black comedy in simply turning the camera on a talented ensemble cast and letting them get under the skins of these appalling characters. The gulf between the tough-talking wannabe crims' perception of themselves and the reality - a bunch of immature adolescents ruined by absent or indulgent parents – is at times hilarious, with the audience taking a guilty pleasure in seeing them stumble further into crisis while screaming potty-mouthed tirades at a world that has suddenly stopped being nice to them.

Timberlake is the supreme exemplar of this, stumbling around centre-stage for much of the film, buffed up and tattooed to the max (as is nearly everyone; this film would walk away with Oscar for Most Abundant Body Art). Essentially he is a child who just wants everything to work out right – and faces the first moral choice of his life when another of Johnny’s acolytes decides to curry favour with the boss by offering a much nastier solution to how you solve a problem like Zack.

The film’s abrupt turn into grim and violent reality doesn’t quite come off – the climax is extended for far too long and confusingly edited – and Cassavetes doesn’t always avoid the temptation to make a guns, drugs and babes lifestyle look more fun than life with hypocritical parents or slaving at a dead-end job. The scene in which two teenage girls seduce Zack in a swimming pool is a particularly risible example of having your weed and inhaling it.

There are also too many shifts to mocked-up after the event interviews with the 'real' protagonists. Though this serves as a salutary reminder that the film was inspired by real events – Johnny is based on Jesse James Hollywood, who became one of the youngest people ever placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. So if you come out of the film thinking: "Nobody could really be as stupid and amoral as this bunch, could they?" sadly, the answer is 'yes'. People like the Alpha Dog and his pack really did (and still do) exist, and what they did wasn’t that funny at all.

Reviewed on: 10 Mar 2007
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The party-hearty lifestyle of bored Californian rich kids is rocked to the core when a botched drug deal has tragic consequences.
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Chris ***

Director: Nick Cassavetes

Writer: Nick Cassavetes

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Fernando Vargas, Vincent Kartheiser, Justin Timberlake, Shawn Hatosy, Bruce Willis, Matthew Barry, Heather Wahlquist, Alex Solowitz, Alec Vigil, Harry Dean Stanton

Year: 2006

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Sundance 2006

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