A few years ago when Alpha Dog came out, not many people liked it. In fact, I was one of the few people who did. I haven’t seen the film since it originally came out but now that it’s on Blu-Ray I finally get to revisit it. Based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, one of the youngest people to ever end up on the FBI Most Wanted List, the film offers a shocking and disturbing look at the kidnapping plot that Hollywood was involved in. The film stars some real talented, albeit young actors and offers a fairly interesting plot.
Although the film is based on a true story, the names have been changed. Instead of Jesse James Hollywood, the main character is named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a young drug dealer living in California under the protection of a rich family in a nice neighborhood. Having done extremely well for himself by starting a small drug empire, Johnny spends his days partying, getting high and messing around. Everything is fine until one day, one of Johnny’s friends, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) gets into some money troubles. Jake owes Johnny some money and can’t pay up. Johnny gets mad and the two get in a fight. With things getting heated between the two, Johnny decides to take things up a notch and kidnaps Jake’s little brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) in hopes that Jake will pay to get his brother back. From here things take off and the film explores the kidnapping and the subsequent events that follow. It’s all childish, until it’s not.
The first thing that you will notice is that it stars three talented, young actors in Foster, Hirsch and Yelchin. Since Alpha Dog, Foster has shown off his acting chops in full force in the incredible 3:10 To Yuma while Hirsch got taken seriously in the equally-stunning Into The Wild. As for Yelchin, this is a kid who always turns in an enjoyable performance. He was the best part about the TV show Huff and one of my favorite reincarnations in the recent Star Trek reboot.
The odd thing about Alpha Dog is that none of these young performers really do a good job. Foster takes his role way too far and overacts almost every scene he is. It becomes a bit uncomfortable at times to watch. Hirsch is far too cocky in his role and just coasts through his scenes with little-to-no effort. It looks like he doesn’t care for the film and is doing it just for the money. Of the three, Yelchin is only one who comes out unscathed. Playing the emotional center of the film and probably the only “normal” (i.e. innocent) character, he does a good job at keeping the audiences engaged. Justin Timberlake also has a large role in the film as Frankie. He actually gives a pretty good performance and is one of the strongest out of all the actors. As Frankie, he gives us a character who is completely seduced by this corrupt life style yet completely likeable. Supporting cast members, such as Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone, are completely throwaway as they add absolutely nothing to the film.
The film chooses to follow more closely the news story rather than the characters involved in the event. Due to this, we lose some character development and motives and actions are never fully explained or they’re not explained as in depth as they should be. The film doesn’t do much justice to the real-life people as they are all portrayed as shallow, 2-D characters.
While the film is presented unflinchingly and is often disturbing and unsettling, a little more exploration into just who these individuals were would have been nice. In fact, the film barely focuses on Truelove at all. The majority of the film revolves around the relationship between Frankie and Zack. While it is fun to watch, I would’ve liked to have seen more screen time given to Hirsch’s character. He was a gangster and acted tough, yet when it came down to it, he was a bit of a wimp. Truelove is a fraud of sorts, and this is barely touched on. Instead of exploring it’s flawed protagonist to the fullest, it will leave viewers searching the Internet for more information on the real Jesse James Hollywood.
Director Nick Cassavettes (John Q, The Notebook) handles the subject material well. He never tries to build suspense and although most of us will know how it ends, the ending is still gut-wrenching and very uncomfortable to watch. It truly does hit you. This is one of the reasons I liked the film. Although I knew how it would all play out, Cassavettes drew me in and engaged me so well that when the ending does come, I still felt shattered and heartbroken. Cassavettes interrupts the film with a documentary-style “interview,” and the switching between the two styles of filmmaking is a bit jarring and kind of got annoying after a while. I get that Cassavettes didn’t want to ruin his film by introducing too many backstories and flashbacks but a bit more background info would’ve been nice.
In the end, Alpha Dog offers a shocking and disturbing look at how teenagers could grow up to be so misguided and screwed up. It’s an entertaining movie and the characters are interesting to watch. While it is not without fault, Alpha Dog is worth seeing. It’s an enjoyable film and the flaws are easy to look past. Hirsch, Foster and Yelchin are great actors and, although they’re not at the top of their game in this film, it is still fun to watch them playing off each other on screen.
The picture offers a nice degree of clarity and always looks crisp and refined. Daylight scenes shine brightly with great contrast. Flesh tones come through well and nighttime scenes are handled ok with only a handful of shots looking a bit too dark. The print is pretty clean and there are no dropouts or dirt or anything of that nature. Detail is good also as the tattoos on the characters are all clear and easy to make out. The colours also look great and are spot on. Overall the picture quality isn’t bad, it has a few gripes here and there but nothing that will detract from the overall quality.
The one problem I had with the audio was the soundtrack. A lot of the songs they chose are too loud and intrusive and the dialogue is drowned out in a few scenes. There is also a few instances of overlapping dialogue where too many people are talking at once. Bass is solid and effects like gunshots come through perfectly. Everything else is handled well on the track, it’s just the abrasive soundtrack and drowning out of dialogue in certain scenes that will Blu-Ray owners wanting more.
The one-and-only extra is a “behind the scenes” feature. I guess it’s better than nothing, but it’s mainly fluff. Watch it once if you want but it really doesn’t offer a whole lot. I would’ve liked to see more features on the actual story behind the film. Perhaps like a documentary on Jesse James Hollywood or something along those lines. It’s too bad nothing like this was included.
In the end, Alpha Dog could have been better. Perhaps if it was approached from a different persepctive or character angle there would have been more depth to it. It presents the facts but doesn’t go much deeper than that. That being said, its immensely enjoyable and has re-watch value.
Bottom Line: A rent for sure and despite the lack of special features I’d probably still say to buy it if you enjoyed it the first time around. I’ve seen it twice now and I’ll probably put it on again sometime in the near future. It’s not a bad movie, it just could have been a lot better.
Movie – 7/10
Audio – 7.5/10
Video – 8/10
Extras – 2/10
Have you seen Alpha Dog? Will you buy/rent the Blu-Ray?