The murder of a 15-year-old boy that lies at the center of Alpha Dog is rendered all the more tragic because it is so totally, utterly senseless. The teenagers who populate the story fancy themselves as street-smart gangstas, but they appear to be engaging in make-believe until it is too late -- a bunch of self-styled tough guys barreling toward a bloody climax that no one is quite smart enough to foresee. Unfairly dissed by a number of critics upon its theatrical release, Alpha Dog is a taut, gritty crime drama that warrants a second chance on DVD.
Writer-director Nick Cassavetes fiddles with some names, dates and locations, but essentially Alpha Dog follows a real-life drama that played out in West Hills, California in August of 2000. California prosecutors allege that drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood ordered the kidnapping and slaying of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz after the boy's older brother failed to pay a $1,200 debt to Hollywood. Four young men were convicted in the shooting death, but Hollywood, then 20, skipped out of the country and subsequently became one of the youngest people on the FBI's "10 Most Wanted Fugitive" list. Now back in custody, Hollywood awaits trial in California and, if convicted, could face the death penalty.
In the tale's transference to film, Hollywood becomes Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsh), Nick Markowitz becomes Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin) and Zack's no-good older brother, the one who gets on Johnny's bad side, is Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster).
We've seen variations of this story many times, of course - delinquent youths and senseless violence have been fueling movies since before Glenn Ford picked up a piece of chalk in Blackboard Jungle. But Alpha Dog does a tidy job of illustrating characters who feel authentic and defy expectations.
Johnny Truelove is a prime example. Although his suburban home is decked out with high-tech gadgetry and such gangsta accoutrements as a blown-up photo of Al Pacino in Scarface, the diminutive Johnny is a decidedly confrontation-averse kingpin. As tensions escalate, Jake breaks into Johnny's home and leaves a turd on the living room carpet. An armed Johnny silently watches the intruder, cowering behind a door. Johnny is far more interested in acting the part of badass.
The young cast rises to the occasion. Foster is particularly exciting to watch. With the exception of one ill-conceived fight scene in which he suddenly becomes a cut-rate Jackie Chan, Foster brilliantly evokes volatility and danger.
The most surprising performance comes from Justin Timberlake, who plays Frankie Ballenbacher, one of Johnny's underlings. As the pop singer proved earlier this year in Black Snake Moan, the dude can act. No one will confuse Frankie for a tragic character, but he's the closest Alpha Dog comes to having one -- a somewhat dense young man who is given the duty of watching Zack and subsequently becomes a substitute big brother for the hostage.
Cassavetes, whose other credits include such so-so works as The Notebook and John Q, enlivens proceedings with directorial flourishes. Some of it works, some not so much. He successfully underscores scenes with an air of fatalism; in one nifty gimmick, Cassavetes employs periodic freeze-frames in which written text will identify a character by his or her eventual witness number.
On the downside, the filmmaker's desire to mix things up is occasionally pointless (why the split screen?) and often smacks of exploitation. There are enough suggestions of sex to titillate -- most notably, a threesome in a swimming pool -- but such scenes have dubious value, either to the narrative or even as being particularly sexy.
Easily the picture's strangest inclusion is a scenery-chewing Sharon Stone, who plays Zack's mother, ensconced in a fat suit toward the movie's end. It is shameless, bloated, over-the-top drivel -- and it is particularly gross when you consider that the mother of the real-life murder victim reportedly attempted suicide after Alpha Dog's release (the Markowitz family, incidentally, has expressed strong disgust with the film).
In anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, the print is excellent quality, with impressively sharp detail and a rich color scheme. The only complaint -- and it's a minor one -- is slight grain in a few nighttime scenes.
The DVD boasts a solid, effective Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that makes immersive use of the rear speakers. A French audio track is also available in 5.1. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
An 11-minute, 27-second featurette, A Cautionary Tale: The Making of Alpha Dog, is a better-than-average promotional piece that includes interviews with Cassavetes, Foster, Timberlake, Hirsh, Stone and others.
The only other extra is a needless "witness timeline" that recaps the film's order of witnesses.
Maligned by a number of movie critics upon its theatrical release, Alpha Dog deserves another chance on DVD. Yes, it is a mixed bag, but writer-director Nick Cassavetes mines some excellent performances (Justin Timberlake has a serious future in acting) in fashioning a compelling crime drama about wannabe bad boys blithely charging into avoidable tragedy.