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Every dog has its day

A review of Alpha Dog (R)

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Lets go over this one more time: You put your junk in - the box on which step?
  • Lets go over this one more time: You put your junk in the box on which step?

*Alpha Dog (R)

Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Alpha Dog is a snarling, frightening look at what happens when spoiled twenty-something Californians confuse affluence with influence a fatal mistake that amplifies confidence into arrogance and drug dealing into murder.

If it sounds realistic, that's because it is. Director/screenwriter Nick Cassavetes' script is based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, who is currently standing trial in California.

In an ethically questionable move, California police and prosecutors granted Cassavetes full access to Hollywood's overwhelming case file. Prosecutors hoped the film's eventual release would help them catch their kidnapping and murder suspect, who at the time, was still on the run.

In 2003, Hollywood fled the country. Two years later, he was found in Brazil. It wasn't long before his lawyers fought to block release of the upcoming film as part of a defense against a potential lifetime prison sentence for their client. They feared the movie could sway juror opinion.

Though ultimately an unsuccessful bid, it did force Universal to temporarily shelve Alpha Dog after its premier at the Sundance Film Festival. A second and seemingly more futile attempt to block the release was in motion as recently as last week.

In Cassavetes' film, Emile Hirsch stars as Johnny Truelove, who fancies himself a modern-day Scarface because he's one of the state's biggest pot dealers. With right-hand man Frankie (Justin Timberlake) and an indebted whipping boy named Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) at his service, Truelove does come off as a force impressive, considering Hirsch's diminutive stature.

After a violent poolside confrontation with a Jewish martial-arts-trained meth addict named Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), Truelove aims to make an example of his newfound enemy by kidnapping Mazursky's 15-year-old brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin). Zack, however, doesn't seem to mind his being held for ransom his troubles at home are happily pushed to the wayside while he drinks, does drugs and hangs out with Johnny's crew.

But as the number of witnesses begins to increase, Johnny concludes that he can no longer simply return Zack the kid might talk. And once Truelove has the hindsight to realize how the whole situation could have been avoided, he's in too deep.

No longer the boy next door, the versatile Hirsch is on his way to becoming the next Leonardo DiCaprio. Possessing the rare ability to completely disappear into character, he exudes a brooding and captivating charisma. Likewise, Timberlake makes a strong impression as the group's conscience, proving successful in his bid to become a serious film actor. His natural chemistry with the equally excellent Yelchin is affecting and effective.

Bruce Willis lends the film weight as Johnny's father and drug supplier. Unfortunately, an overacting Sharon Stone attempts to upstage the talented young cast by wearing a fat suit in one of the film's only questionable scenes. Thankfully, Foster picks up the slack with the film's most impressive performance. He's magnetic as he recklessly commands the audience's attention, like a wild-eyed Ryan Gosling.

Director Cassavetes lends the story an appropriate documentary feel and provides the proceedings a certain authenticity. Bearing a striking resemblance to Larry Clark's Bully, another true tale of teenage murder, Alpha Dog succeeds as a competent, engaging character drama.

The film impresses not because it has enough bark and bite to spare, but because it has a bullet's worth of conviction.

And alongside a story like this, that's all it needs.

scene@csindy.com

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