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Cinema Signal: This classic based-on-fact crime drama is a must see. The signal is green. Go!

. "Alpha Dog"

Writer-director Nick Cassavetes recreates the Jesse James Hollywood case of drug debts, kidnapping and murder with a hot cast of players and dynamic pacing. Besides its relationship to current headlines, the effect of realism is underscored with titles that tell us the real identities of the peripheral players in the drama, a technique that might have been lifted from the Charles Manson TV docudrama, "Helter Skelter," and which detracts from the film's effectiveness by confusing styles.

There's nothing new about drug deals gone bad, buyers not able to pay on the date due, as in this case, Jake Mazursky (a somewhat radical Ben Foster). Somehow the concept of drug using and fourflushing relate. The wrinkle in this case is the choice that kingpin Johnny Truelove (Emil Hirsch) makes when he spots Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin), Jake's younger brother, drifting alone out in a field. More from inpulse than cool reason, Johnny sees this as an opportunity to hold the kid for the ransom of the debt owed him. His mostly sycophantic crew goes along with hustling the kid into their van.

There are a great many things wrong with Johnny's imagined scenario, not the least of which is his debtor Jake's extremely violent nature but, as the story is outlined, presumably from enough real sources to claim some degree of truth, the kidnappee not only doesn't rebel at his circumstances, but exults in this new experience. When given a chance to go free by Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake), he chooses to remain with his new role models.

For him, this is a true coming of age story, and a virtual rescue from his unhappy and overstrained home life with possessive mother Olivia Mazursky (Sharon Stone) and Butch (David Thornton), her weak-around-the-edges husband, Zack's dad. The kid revels in the sudden exposure to so much excitement, underground lifestyles, and party girls. On any witness stand he could only have admitted to his total complicity in his own kidnapping, a term particularly fitting in this context but perhaps not altogether true. "I would never rat you guys out," he affirms. "Hey, we know that man," declaims his primary gang baby sitter Frankie.

The Santa Barbara underworld lifestyle of the gang is a world of macho style, status and criminal violence, as needed to maintain one's position in the hierarchy and in the esteem of your peers and your women. During one party, gang member Peter Johansson (Paul Johansson) is derided and accused of being so faithful to Johnny Truelove's every command that he must be queer. Thus starts a need to prove his gang stature by being even more absolute in his loyalty to his leader, making Paul the principal instrument of the tragedy to follow.

The criminal quagmire the gang has leaped into with the kidnapping is framed by ringleader Johnny Truelove's father Sonny in an interview (appropriately sullen wiseass Bruce Willis). Harry Dean Stanton is there as Cosmo Gadabeeti, Truelove family friend and unquestioning supporter who is as proud of Johnny as a grandfather.

Sharon Stone is quite superb, rising to awesome in her ultimate scene. Ben Foster raises the criminal vicousness to the madman level, a portrayal that, perhaps too much by design, demands its own attention beyond service to the ensemble piece. Emile Hirsch starts out suitably magnetic as the gang leader, but before this supposed characterization of Jesse James Hollywood is over, we have a portrait of a man led by impulse who retains his leadership only because his followers are less imaginative than he is. Is J.J. Hollywood something less than an Alpha Dog? And, while all gang members are well portrayed, Timberlake is a standout for his tough, humorous and humane Frankie. Tattoed like a circus barker, the singer-composer maintains anti-hero fascination throughout and quite smartly proves his creds and appeal in the acting department.

Tension and high emotional level of the players is the style of Cassavetes' docudrama and, for the most part it works toward keeping you fascinated with a truly singular case in the annals of drug crime. Some of his choices are questionable, however, as in the way he structures the story. When Johnny assigns Frankie to take care of Zack, Johnny all but disappears for the remainder of the act as Frankie takes over the lead role. And, wherever did Jake Mazursky drift off to after his hysterical rant vowing to kill Johnny?

Because of its detail of the case and the individuals involved, and despite the film's success on the festival circuit, it was blocked from release by the courts for about a year. Which makes it all the more remarkable for having been unblocked (at the time of this writing) by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals despite the accused killer's request to the contrary. Jesse James Hollywood, 26-year old fugitive on the lam for years in the slaying of Nicholas Markowitz in 2000, has finally been found (in Paraguay), arrested and is in custody at this time, awaiting trial.

One will note that the character names have been changed for some of the principals, but use real names in other cases. The tattoos on Timberlake and Benson are state of the art for design. The hip soundtrack has some grit with funk, rock and hip-hop in the tray for a juiced-up gang party.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Emil Hirsch is Johnny Truelove
Drug dealer turned kidnapper turned murderer on the lam.

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