Alpha Dog (review)

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When B Movies Go Bad

I wish Roger Corman had made this movie.

We make fun of Corman, but he was a visionary in a lot of ways that had nothing to do with making films fast and cheap. He was a god of B movies because he understood the core of what made them so trashily thrilling: he didn’t bother with any extraneous nonsense, he just cut — often quite literally — to the chase. If a story was about, oh, say, teenage suburban California drug dealers who kidnap a kid on a lark and hold him “hostage” against the money the kid’s older brother owes the boss drug dealer and then realize that, gosh, they probably do have to kill the kid after all, well, then, that’s what the movie would be. Corman wouldn’t have bothered with a bunch of tedious junk exploring the psychosocial underpinnings of why nice middle-class teens go bad and do too many drugs and have meaningless anonymous sex — he would have just let that bubble up from the context instead of talking and talking and talking about it (and still not offering any depth new insights for all the trouble).
Corman’s Alpha Dog would have been a brisk 80 minutes, and it would have clipped along, hitting all the violent high points and tawdry lowlights… and Corman would have made them seem genuinely, magnificently tawdry, not tried to twist them into something somehow meaningful or even beautiful. And Corman’s Alpha Dog would have crackled with lean and mean cinematic energy, and it would have left you wrung out but exhilarated.

Unfortunately, this Alpha Dog is by Nick Cassavetes, and it clocks in at an impressively oppressive 120 minutes, and it’s chock full of embarrassing baloney that tries to dress up the inherent crude B-movie-ness of itself. The scene in which the 15-year-old hostage boy, Zack (Anton Yelchin: House of D, Taken), who is greatly enjoying his sojourn into the teenage wasteland of his adolescent elders, gets his cherry popped by not one but two nubile blond Barbie dolls in a secluded swimming pool late at night is constructed by Cassavetes as if this were a moment of supreme soulfulness, instead of what it is: two naked bimbos in a pool with a wide-eyed kid.

That bit is sort of just eye-rolling. The scenes in which Sharon Stone (Bobby, Basic Instinct 2), as Zack’s mother, goes ballistically histrionic in her worry over her missing son are rather hilariously awful — they add absolutely zilch to the story to boot. Even more unnecessary are the sections intercut throughout the film in which some of the characters are “interviewed” on camera, presumably by a journalist looking back on this kiddie kidnapping and trying to ferret out the “real” people behind the story — Stone’s got one of those at the end of the film that features a truly bad makeup job intended to demonstrate just how deeply she has been affected by her son’s experience. It’s truly a thing of jaw-dropping awfulness.

But I don’t know why I should have expected anything else: Cassavetes’ last two films were The Notebook and John Q, both of which wallow in faux operatics that mistake cheesy melodrama for actually involving, actually emotional, actually enlightening drama. But it’s even more out of place here — Cassavetes is trying to turn his B movie into GoodFellas, but he ain’t no Scorsese. Getting an overblown performance out of Sharon Stone probably isn’t too difficult, but he lets too many of his cast members go wild in laughable ways (and this isn’t a comedy). Ben Foster (X-Men: The Last Stand, Hostage), as Zack’s older brother, the one with the debt to the drug dealer, is allowed to go crazy in several scenes, supposed demonstrations of how far over the egde his drug addiction has pushed him, but he ends up looking like something out of a Three Stooges short.

The only really surprising or interesting thing about Alpha Dog is that boy-band refugee Justin Timberlake acquits himself rather nicely here. He’s pretty good as a young suburban gangsta hopped up on his own self-importance and sense of immortality — drugs’ll do that to ya, on top of the toll that mere adolescence takes — and he’s about the only one who’s authentically pissing his pants in fear when things start to go bad.

You know you’re in trouble when a guy from *NSYNC is the best thing in a movie.

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