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Friday, January 12, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Alpha Dog" | No new tricks for this old "Dog"

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Alpha Dog," with Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Shawn Hatosy, Christopher Marquette, Sharon Stone, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Willis. Written and directed by Nick Cassavetes. 117 minutes. Rated R for pervasive drug use and language, strong violence, sexuality and nudity. Several theaters.

Writer/director Nick Cassavetes' biography, in press materials for his new film "Alpha Dog," doesn't mention "The Notebook," his shamelessly gooey 2004 love story/weepie. It's an understandable omission, because it's hard to believe that the same filmmaker made these two movies. "Alpha Dog," a tale of a group of drug-fueled teenagers, is gritty to the point of painful abrasion. If it's meant to erase memories of "The Notebook," it succeeds, but not in a good way.

Based on the true story of the recently arrested teen criminal and fugitive Jesse James Hollywood (which, apparently, was his real name), "Alpha Dog" takes us into the world of a group of young toughs in Los Angeles' San Gabriel Valley. Their leader is Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a drug dealer with an arrogant swagger and a lifestyle that belies his years. Jake (Ben Foster), a member of their circle, fails to come up with money owed to Johnny, and a rift divides the group, resulting in the kidnapping of Jake's young brother Zack (Anton Yelchin). A trying-to-be-tough kid who seems more innocent than the others, Zack becomes dazzled by the attention; meanwhile, the clock ticks away and the gang tries to decide what to do with him.

"Alpha Dog" assembles some fine actors, particularly Hirsch (who has a glee reminiscent of a darker Jack Black), Yelchin, and a surprisingly effective Justin Timberlake as Johnny's wingman Frankie. But it's disjointed and messy in its semi-faux-documentary format, with Cassavetes substituting flashy techniques (for example, the movie breaks into split screen at one point, for no particular reason) for emotional resonance and character. All the parents, it seems, are self-absorbed and neglectful; all the kids blend together as hedonistic gangsta-wannabes. (For long stretches, it's hard to tell them apart.)

The teens-and-drugs territory is sadly overfamiliar — we've seen this story too many times, and we know it can't end well. The violence and the drugs and the F-bombs fly by, but Cassavetes gives us little reason to care about these lost boys; we're numbed to it, just as the kids are. That may well be a message, but it's not fresh enough for two hours.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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