'Alpha Dog' tells the story of 18 year-old Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a small-time drug dealer who spends his days moving "product" for his dad Sonny (Bruce Willis), and partying with his own band of sycophants. Ultimately a conflict with another dealer named Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) will lead Truelove to kidnap Mazursky's 15 year-old stepbrother Zack (Anton Yelchin), but while Zack ends up reveling in the hedonistic and drug adled charms of his captors, his disappearance quickly spirals out of control. With the police hot on their trail, Truelove and his crew must decide what do with their 15 year-old prisoner.
If you're a fan of "Dateline NBC" or "America's Most Wanted," most of the above is likely to sound familiar to you as 'Alpha Dog' is based the true story of drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood and the kidnapping and eventual murder of Nicholas Markowitz. But what's intriguing (if ethically dubious) about 'Alpha Dog' is that it does not seem interested in historical accuracy. In fact, rather than choosing to depict and try to understand the actions of the real-life alleged criminals that inspired the film, the filmmakers seem more interested in examining how their own highly-fictionalized characters might have committed the same crimes.
'Alpha Dog' generated much controversy (but precious little box office) when it opened this past January, largely due to a lawsuit by the real Jesse James Hollywood trying to block the film's release, claiming that it was libelous. But with all the names changed to protect the innocent (or, in this case, the guilty), one wonders why Mr. Hollywood chose to create such a fuss -- it certainly attracted far more attention to the film than it ever would have received otherwise. And with Hollywood now "Johnny Truelove," etc., the actual plot points of 'Alpha Dog' don't resemble the actual chain of events very much at all.
In any case, the film that 'Alpha Dog' most reminded me of was 'River's Edge,' the unsettling 1985 crime drama starring Keanu Reeves. The basic scenario of the two films is the same -- a bunch of aimless (and often stoned) kids, all make the wrong decisions as a preventable situation runs right off the tracks to become a catastrophe. Even though the teens in 'River's Edge' are not career criminals like Truelove -- and 'Edge' dealt with a far darker ultimate outcome -- a fascination with the disaffected is the powerful common denominator between both movies. Ultimately, 'Alpha Dog' seems to argue the same point as 'River's Edge' -- the reason no one does the right thing is because they can't see the bigger picture, and have no empathy or understanding of how their actions affect others. In the moment, each decision appears to make sense, only because none of these kids are ever able to see beyond their immediate gratification.
Thematically and narratively, writer/director Nick Cassavettes ('The Notebook,' 'John Q') makes the telling choice to provide more of an omniscient viewpoint, showing us multiple perspectives of those involved, but not getting inside the head of any of the film's many protagonists. Indeed, I never really knew if this was Truelove's story, or Jake's, or Zack's -- instead, Cassavettes seems more interested in showing us how each character could do what they did in the moment, but not the underlying reasons. As a result, the film is successful in creating plausibility for decisions that, given the whole, seem outrageous in hindsight.
Unfortunately, where 'Alpha Dog' fails to make the leap is in the next logical step in its analysis -- what caused these kids to be unable to assess the moral weight of their situation, and to comprehend the basic concepts of responsibility and consequence? Is it specific to their immediate community? Their wealth? Growing up in a culture of crime? 'Alpha Dog' never commits to telling a broader cautionary tale, or to making a concentrated moral point.
However, as pure entertainment, 'Alpha Dog' certainly never left me bored. This is a perfectly well-made crime movie, and is impressively well acted. Everyone gives a fine performance, particularly Emile Hirsch's nuanced turn as Truelove, and Anton Yelchin as Zack, who effectively conveys how his character's misplaced familial loyalty could so cloud his judgment. Even Justin Timberlake brings a fiery intensity to his top-billed (if rather small) role as a one of Truelove's crew. 'Alpha Dog' is also quite astute in how it accurately paints the emptiness of L.A.'s glitzy surfaces that so tantalize its spoiled rich kids.
Still, I longed for more depth and a stronger emotional pay-off from 'Alpha Dog.' I certainly commend the filmmakers for not being preachy, but I have to ask -- why make a movie based on such an incendiary real-life tale if you have no real opinion about it?
'Alpha Dog' is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer, and unfortunately, it's a bit of a mess. Far more inconsistent than I'm used to from Universal, the only reason I'm even giving this one 3 stars is because (judging by the standard-def version on the flipside of this HD DVD/DVD combo disc), it's the source material that's at least partially to blame.
On the bright side, there are no print anomalies, dropouts, dirt, etc. However, grain is all over the place. Low-lit shots are quite bad, with some obvious noise that often severely curtails shadow delineation. Contrast is fairly hot, which is not atypical these days, but some scenes are far more calm and natural, which only adds to the inconsistent presentation. Colors veer from being oversaturated to the point of bleeding (mostly during night scenes) to being nice and realistic in bright exteriors. Detail is strong enough that I could make out all of Justin Timberlake's fake tattoos, yet sometimes so poor that Sharon Stone's obviously air-brushed face looked flat and digital. Ultimately, depth and sharpness just don't earn top marks, with the image looking flat and soft for about half the runtime. Visually speaking, 'Alpha Dog' rarely rates above the level of disappointment.
Happily, the audio is much better than the video. Universal has included a rare Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track for 'Alpha Dog,' and while the film never really cranks it up into five-star territory, it's still a strong, enveloping soundtrack.
With plenty of hip-hop/R&B songs on the soundtrack, plus many active party scenes, 'Alpha Dog' enjoys a pretty lively mix. There are few peaks, as the film doesn't really have much action, but I was really surprised by the soundtrack's sustained atmosphere. Rears are almost consistently engaged with minor ambiance, from crowd noise to a healthy amount of bleed to the music. Spread across the front soundstage is excellent throughout, with rock-solid dialogue that is perfectly balanced in the mix -- no volume matching problems here. Dynamic range is also healthy, with great low bass and a clean, realistic timbre to the rest of the upper range. This soundtrack isn't a smash-hit home run, but it certainly is the best part of this disc.
'Alpha Dog' comes to HD DVD as a combo disc, with only a single bonus feature. Lest anyone think Universal is skimping on the high-def side of the disc, however, the DVD flip is just as sparse. Apparently, due to 'Alpha Dog's lack of box office or some other unknown reason, the studio decided not to produce much of anything in the way of supplemental features for the flick.
All we get is a 10-minute featurette, "A Cautionary Tale: The Making of 'Alpha Dog.'" The usual on-set cast and crew interviews make up the bulk of the runtime, combined with the requisite film clips. Unfortunately this one comes across as just another promotional fluff piece, which is especially disappointing given the real-life tale behind the movie. What a missed opportunity.
As is typical for Universal, there is no theatrical trailer offered.
'Alpha Dog' is an entertaining film boasting some strong performances but ultimately it lacks the insight to fully deliver on what should have been a hauntingly modern cautionary tale. This HD DVD is mixed bag, too. The soundtrack is a highlight, but the video transfer isn't up to snuff and the "extras" are even worse. Still, there's enough good here to warrant a rental for fans of true-life crime stories.