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A tale ripped right from the news pages

`Alpha Dog' digs into the sordid world of Jesse James Hollywood, but comes up rather empty.

January 12, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

A moral doughnut of a movie with an equally empty dramatic center, the true-crime drama "Alpha Dog" strip-mines the notorious saga of Jesse James Hollywood, a 20-year-old West Valley drug dealer who allegedly masterminded the kidnapping and murder of a 15-year-old. Shrouded in controversy for its effect on Hollywood's impending trial, the film arrives in theaters a year after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.

Writer-director Nick Cassavetes, best known for melodramas such as "John Q" and "The Notebook," sets emotion aside for the most part to focus on the sordid world that begat Hollywood and his pack of drug-addled flunkies. In turning the real-life tragedy of wasted young lives into cinematic narrative, Cassavetes applies plenty of gritty style, but is unable to make any of it very compelling.

Johnny Truelove, played by Emile Hirsch, is the movie's version of Jesse Hollywood, a swaggering little drug kingpin who oversees the distribution of marijuana provided by his father, Sonny (Bruce Willis). Smaller than his buddies, his power comes from the cash he generates, which allows the group to live the gangsta life of non-stop partying and a seemingly endless supply of nubile girls. These guys have seen far too many mafia movies and been exposed to too many rap videos, leading them to speak in an odd patois that suggests Vito Corleone channeled through Eminem.

Things begin to turn bad when one of Johnny's skinhead clients, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), can't pay his ganja tab and is summarily cut off. An escalating war of disrespect rages, leading to the impulsive poaching of Jake's younger half brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin), by Johnny and his heavily tattooed band of hooligans.

The film's title may be ironic because Johnny only superficially represents the prototypical alpha male. He's surrounded by yes men, pivotally his lieutenants -- Frankie (Justin Timberlake) and Tiko (Fernando Vargas) -- and the posse's groveling Omega man, Elvis (Shawn Hatosy). They defer to him, reluctantly following even the most dubious of orders, but as written by Cassavetes, Johnny's a poseur, a coward whose indecisiveness and paranoia lead directly to the story's far from inevitable conclusion.

Johnny drops out of the film for long stretches while Frankie is left to baby-sit the abducted Zack in Palm Springs. Dramatically, what begins as a fierce battle between Johnny and Jake shifts to a sort of druggie-buddy picture focusing on Frankie and Zack. For even though Johnny and his thugs beat the daylights out of him when they initially snatch him, Zack begins to think he's one of the boys, partying with them and implausibly refusing several opportunities to escape.

The Palm Springs sojourn is a showcase for Timberlake, who turns in "Alpha Dog's" most nuanced performance. In a film with several over-the-top characters bordering on camp, Timberlake's Frankie is the only one who approaches three dimensions, adept at convincingly dishing out some of the movie's disturbing violence as well as registering subtle shifts in Frankie's allegiance.

For Southern Californians, it will be almost impossible to separate the drama of "Alpha Dog" from the Hollywood case because it continues to play out so prominently on the local news. Legal and insurance concerns forced Cassavetes to switch the names, dates and locations of the events, but many of the changes become more than a little distracting.

Claremont and the San Gabriel Valley replace West Hills and the San Fernando Valley, although Claremont is introduced with an overhead shot of a large mislocated freeway interchange and is apparently patrolled by the LAPD.

Palm Springs becomes the location where Zack is held captive, although the real life locale of Santa Barbara remains with the presence of that city's State Street and Old Spanish Days Fiesta. These are the kind of trivial details that don't bother you in a better movie.

Cassavetes punctuates the film with documentary-style interviews and informational graphics that work against his more expressionistic intentions. The trick to make a movie like this work is to get people in the audience so wrapped up in the drama that they forget what they know of the real-life story. Unfortunately, the incessant reminders of the outcome, along with the liberal use of split screen, serve only to create a disconnect from what's on-screen.

While honor among thieves may be a concept perpetuated by the movies, the bad boys of "Alpha Dog" are strictly out for themselves. With the exception of the tragically misguided loyalty displayed by Elvis, self-preservation is the order of the day. Cassavetes attempts to pin the disastrous events on bad parenting, but he fails to muster the necessary empathy for anyone involved.

"Alpha Dog," rated R for pervasive drug use and language, strong violence, sexuality and nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. In general release.

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