It's been almost a year since Alpha Dog first premiered at Sundance, and since then it's had to face a very real battle inside the courtroom as lawyers and criminals fought hard to block its theatrical release. On the surface, Alpha Dog presents itself as an ensemble gang-bang full of pretty faces, sexy bodies and hard drugs. Dig a little deeper and you'll find a painful real-life story that's almost impossible to believe and, at times, just as impossible to sit through, save for dazzling performances from Ben Foster and -- whaddya know -- Justin Timberlake.
Remember that warning your parents would always give you whenever a situation was just about to spill over into punishment land? It went something like, "Keep horsing around and someone is going to get hurt." Well that never applied to Johnny Truelove (Emil Hirsch) and friends, as horsing around and getting hurt were one in the same. Rich punks with rich parents, all caught up in the world of selling dope as if it were the perfect after-school job for a kid trying to make something of himself. Although that something always amounted to nothing, yet it's hard to see that when every day is a rowdy party -- complete with sex, drugs and just a twist of violence -- enough to whet the appetite of any moviegoer on a cold winter's night.
Truelove is the man, a businessman, or at least thinks he is -- thanks to help from his "connected" father, Sonny Truelove (Bruce Willis), and Sonny's old-school, wise-cracking side-kick Cosmo (Harry Dean Stanton), Johnny is provided with all the pot he can push. With tons of drugs, money and a "connected" father, comes power ... lots of it. Johnny's crew -- made up of ghetto-ized wannabee Tony Montana's -- look up to their leader as if he were an all-knowing God. And, if you can't pay an outstanding debt, then expect to fear for your life, or -- like Johnny's pal Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) -- expect to be obeying orders like a dog until the slate is wiped clean. If you don't like to be pushed around, and are one of the few who actually disrespect Johnny, like Jake (a Hitler-loving speed freak, as played by Ben Foster), then expect to go to war.
When Jake loses his top and physically attacks Truelove over a $1200 debt he owes, the line is officially crossed. Truelove has Jake fired from his job, Jake retaliates and breaks into Johnny's house, guns drawn, where he decides to drop his pants and leave a smelly, brown present on his enemy's living room carpet. Yes, he sh*ts on the floor. And we get to watch. Finally, as the attacks intensify, Johnny spots Jake's 15 year-old brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) walking alone on the side of the road. Stop, snatch, grab -- and now the Truelove crew have a hostage, one that's bound to infuriate Jake and force him to cough up the money. However, at this point it's no longer about the money, it's now become personal.
But what do they do about this hostage? They're not professional kidnappers, they're drug dealers and party animals who have better things to do than babysit a 15 year-old kid. As Zack's straight-laced parents (David Thornton and Sharon Stone) begin to worry about their son, Zack is off pulling bong hits, trimming pot plants, engaging in underwater threesomes with beautiful girls and having the time of his life. He's young and he's alive for the first time -- sprung from his parents' strict household -- chilling alongside some of the coolest cats on the planet. As Zack sees it, his brother will pay up sooner or later and he'll have a story to tell his grandkids ... as soon as they become consenting adults, of course. Three days and 47 parties later, Johnny, as well as his partner-in-crime Frankie (a semi-muscular Justin Timberlake covered in tats), realize they might be in a little over their heads as far as this kidnapping thing goes. How's life in prison sound? So, something must be done about the kid. And no, just simply letting him go, hoping he'll cover the whole thing up with a few white lies, is not an option.
In fact, there aren't many options, except ... possibly ... whacking him. Hey, but Frankie, asked by Johnny to be Zack's primary guardian, has formed a bond with the little nuisance. So have the other members of the Truelove crew. C'mon, they're not professional hitmen, they're drug dealers and party animals who have better things to do than whack a 15 year-old kid over a $1200 debt owed by his brother. And what about all the witnesses? Ya know, the army of half-naked partygoers who, between getting stoned and having sex, managed to give Zack a cute little nickname, Stolen Boy?
Writer-director Nick Cassavetes wants you to know about each and every single witness, via one-second captions on the screen, as proof he's capable of shooting a film that's nothing at all like The Notebook. If the sex, drugs and filthy language don't convince you, perhaps the brief stylized split-screens -- thrown in for no apparent reason -- and Sharon Stone in an awkward-looking fat suit will. Tack on a bunch of one-on-one TV-style interviews with a few of the characters and Cassavetes also produces a film that's a tad too long, too drawn-out and too over-the-top.
And it's based on a true-life story -- that of Jesse James Hollywood (changed to Johnny Truelove for the film since his case is still pending), one of the youngest people ever featured on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Google him if you want to know what happens in the end. And that's part of the problem with Alpha Dog. Not only do we despise these characters throughout, but the climax, while powerful, doesn't carry the same effect for someone who knows about the case. But those folks who don't know about Jesse James Hollywood, who have somehow missed the news reports and Court TV specials, might enjoy the film's slow build-up (if you can see through the bong smoke) -- it sort of feels like a ticking time-bomb is about to go off and you don't know when, where or how it will explode. While it's easy to say Justin Timberlake is the best part of the film (partly because he's playing a character written to ooze with coolness), perhaps that's not such a bad thing.
Wow, I can't believe I just said that.