- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2007

Last year’s “Harsh Times” took too much pleasure in the gang-banging, pot-smoking exploits of two friends headed for disaster.

The new film “Alpha Dog” multiplies the mayhem, underage drinking and drugging until “Harsh Times” looks like “Snow White” by comparison.

What makes it more grotesque is that it’s based on a true story, the kidnap and murder of a 15-year-old California innocent.

Yet, “Alpha Dog” feels artificial despite its grounding in fact. It’s impossible to imagine this version of reality, especially with writer-director Nick Cassavetes orchestrating it with a salacious eye that’s blind to characterization and cohesion.

Young, pint-sized Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) runs a profitable pot business with some help from his negligent father (a distracted Bruce Willis).

Johnny is the epicenter of a gang of drug-lovin’, women bumpin’ hooligans, but you’d never know it from the criminally miscast Mr. Hirsch. He’s all sullen poses and grubby facial hair without the magnetic aura the real Johnny must have emitted.

One of Johnny’s customers, a junkie named Jake (Ben Foster), can’t pay his drug bill, which starts a miniwar between the two.

The disagreement turns uglier when Jake ransacks Johnny’s home and leaves an unmentionable present behind. So Johnny gets revenge by kidnapping Jake’s brother Zack (Anton Yelchin).

The kidnapping begins with anger but turns into something else entirely. Zack longs to escape the sterile confines of his home life, and when his kidnappers loosen the leash on him he starts enjoying the imprisonment. He even bonds with Frankie (Justin Timberlake), the only one of Johnny’s henchmen with a semblance of a soul.

Sometimes, Mr. Cassavetes remembers he’s telling a true story so he time-stamps the date and place of various scenes on screen and tips us off as to which characters were witnesses in the subsequent trial. It’s as transparent as it is ineffective, but it’s not nearly as bad as the faux documentary moments fused into the story, like when an off-screen interviewer asks Mr. Willis’ character and a few others about the crime.

You can count the redeemable characters here on one hand and have enough digits left to flash the peace sign, but the film’s treatment of women is particularly nauseating. It’s like the most lurid hip-hop video come to life, as women crawl over these thugs as if they had each just dropped a platinum record.

As Zack’s grief stricken mother, Sharon Stone goes over the top in one of her few scenes, then later appears in a fat suit which seems to reign her in. Better to stay out of public view than appear too long in this mess.

The sole survivor is Mr. Timberlake, who rises above his nonsensical character and appears ready for sturdier roles.

“Alpha Dog” wants to be a cautionary tale, so it should know better than to glorify the excesses it hopes to discourage.

** 1/2

TITLE: “Alpha Dog”

RATING: R (Nudity, extreme language, drug use, sexual situations and violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Nick Cassavetes.

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

WEB SITE: www.alphadogmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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