3 Stars
Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 117 minutes
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Where would Hollywood be without crime? I’m not referring to the connection between the Mafia and the studio system, or the virtual indentured servitude of the early contract years, though these certainly didn’t hurt. No, I’m talking about big screen depictions of the underworld life. Some of my favorite movies are portrayals of savvy criminals plying their craft, everything from “The Sting” to “The Brinks Job” to “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3,” the list is long and – usually – illustrious.

However, as anyone who’s seen an episode of “COPS” can attest, the majority of criminals aren’t exactly masterminds. Peruse the Metro section of any average-sized American city’s newspaper and it quickly becomes apparent that your everyday felon is a far cry from the likes of Henry Gondorf. You’re less likely to read a story about a daring pre-dawn bank heist in which the thieves got away with millions than you are the one about a guy breaking his leg after falling through the ceiling of a McDonald’s he was attempting to rob or some shmuck getting shot by a 7-11 clerk after accidentally revealing the “gun” in his pocket was actually his thumb and forefinger.

Bearing that in mind, here’s “Alpha Dog,” the latest from Nick Cassavetes, the director of “John Q” and “The Notebook.” “Alpha Dog” introduces us to youthful drug dealer Johnny “JT” Truelove (Emile Hirsch) and his posse of similarly worthless friends. These include Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) – the prototypical hanger-on who’s working off a debt to JT by doing menial chores around the house, and Frankie (Justin Timberlake) – the loudmouthed, heavily tatted best friend. Their existence consists primarily of getting loaded, watching music videos, and acting hard, proving there are few groups of people more deserving of the an ignominious death than suburban white “gangstas.”

Things get a little interesting with the arrival of Jake (a severely tweaked Ben Foster), who tries to bluff JT about some money he owes him. The two fight, leading to a series of escalations (JT gets Jake fired, Jake trashes JT’s house and takes a shit on his rug) culminating in JT’s spur-of-the-moment decision to kidnap Jake’s brother Zack (Anton Yelchin). As luck would have it, Zack has been chafing under his parents’ yoke (Sharon Stone and David Thornton) and is only too happy to hang out with JT’s crew, smoking weed, playing video games, and enjoying the heretofore unknown attention of girls. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, JT’s hasty action has already initiated a chain of events that will end tragically for all concerned.

Give Cassavetes credit for not going too stylistically nuts, which seems to be the order of the day for modern-day crime flicks. He plays a few split-screen tricks here and there, but otherwise behaves himself. And the script, while necessarily heavy on the gangster patois, is still nonetheless occasionally entertaining. The real weakness comes from the fact that the film only has two remotely sympathetic characters: Zack, who never quite grasps the implications of his predicament, and Frankie. Frankie is the moral center of “Alpha Dog,” such as it is, and if there’s anything truly surprising about the movie it’s Timberlake’s performance. He imbues Frankie with some actual depth of feeling, which we see in his growing affection for Zack, and never allows the character to sink to simple stereotype. I almost hate to say it, but he might be reason enough to watch this.

The movie itself is based on the true case of Jesse James Hollywood (currently awaiting trial in California), and Cassavetes was given unprecedented access to actual case files by the district attorney prosecuting the case, files which contained a good bit of confidential information. Your enjoyment of “Alpha Dog” may very well depend on how put off you are by these facts, as well as how much you buy Timberlake in his role, and how in the mood you are to sit through “River’s Edge” set in the “Entourage” universe. Indeed, Hirsch’s Truelove is essentially Turtle, albeit considerably less genial and a bit thinner.

And dumber. Seriously, I was waiting for them to try and break into a McDonald’s.

Posted on January 13, 2007 in Reviews by

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