The litmus test for macho actors and characters in Badass movies—a vast genre encompassing everything from Reservoir Dogs to that stupidfuck Longest Yard remake—is to imagine the badass in question sitting in on a Scared Straight session without peeing his pants. Harry Dean Stanton in Straight Time? Dry as a bone. Ryan Phillippe in The Way of the Gun? A tad moist.
In the new Badass flick Alpha Dog, the toughest tough guy is played by butter-soft Pop crooner Justin Timberlake. Amazingly, his drawers aren’t exactly a sopping mess. His character is an unflappable, down-for-whatever enforcer—the kind of thug sideman Robert De Niro made iconic in Goodfellas. He instigates fights; calls dudes fags and pussies without looking around to see if they’re drawing back to knock his ass out; dives right into the middle of the chaos when random gangfight shit goes down. Tattoos, muscle tone, dead eyes. It’s a startling transformation, and I didn’t buy it for a second. The trouble is in the eyes: Timberlake’s peepers sparkle, far, far from dead. Watching him mimic cackling heartlessness reminded me of nice guy Isaac Hayes attempting to portray meanass avenger Truck Turner. As Truck beat down random suckas with the advice, “Tell ’em you got hit by a Truck,” his eyes apologized.
Alpha Dog itself has cloudy, astigmatic eyes, and its pants are filthy with piss, vomit and marijuana residue. It stumbles around cursing and hurling threats; recoils at the slightest hint of real trouble. Not to sound like one of the flick’s hysterical wigger palookas, but: Alpha Dog needs its ass beat.
And yet, as I drew my hand back to slap the shit out of this movie, I found I had to lower it in confounded surprise. Some kid I’d never heard of showed up to bring the flick some spine and brain. His name is Emile Hirsch. His character, Johnny Truelove, is based on http://unsolvedmysteries.wikia.com/wiki/Jesse_James_Hollywood, a real-life drug dealer who became rich at 20 by selling to affluent SoCal kids. But Hollywood’s flight after orchestrating one of the stupidest kidnappings on the books put him on the F.B.I.’s most wanted list; he was arrested in Brazil last year, after six years on the run. As I would later discover when a friend insisted I watch Hirsch in Lords of Dogtown, the kid can play any race or socio-economic background—so long as the character is a straightup badass. In Dogtown, he goes from goldenlocked skater punk to crewcut, lowriding vato loco. But his defiance and charisma are constant from frame one.
Alpha Dog sticks close to the facts provided to the production by the case’s real-life D.A.: Writer-director Nick Cassavetes concludes from the evidence that the whole botched abduction transpired in clouds of weed smoke; that Truelove/Hollywood’s crew didn’t initially grasp the gravity of their crime, which was intended more as a stunt to intimidate a client clocker who was out to shake them down. They abducted the fiend’s sheltered 15-year old brother (played by Anton Yelchin) only to find themselves bonding and partying with the little bastard; paradoxically, when Truelove’s lawyer reminds him that kidnapping can result in a life sentence, it becomes clear that the kid must die.
The film’s fatal conceit is having its young actors play the dumb, wasted Truelove crew as Dumb and Wasted. It reminded me of the menagerie of talented black actors mimicking gangbangers in Dennis Hopper’s exciting but ludicrous Colors. Their broad cooning amounted to a subtle mutiny right under Hopper’s nose. Likewise, the boys in Alpha Dog seem to be having too much fun acting out stupid machismo to connect this behavior to plausible adolescent fears and desires. Only Hirsch, Yelchin and Shawn Hatosy, who plays Truelove’s slavish sidekick (and, intriguingly, possible lover?) pull from something real. Truelove’s cool intelligence just doesn’t jibe with such a foolish scheme or the imbecilic behavior of his other homeboys. Timberlake, meanwhile, keeps his slender muscles flexed and his nasal voice from cracking clear to the end of each scene he’s in. (Congrats.) Costars Harry Dean Stanton and Bruce Willis provide one or two of the Alpha Dog’s rare intentional laughs as Johnny’s boorish/affectionate, vaguely mob-affiliated elders. They make Badass look easy and fun without tearing at the film’s credibility.
Cassavetes strains to braid threads of menace and comical absurdity that blended so smoothly in the dumb crooks saga Fargo. But Cassavetes is no Coen brother. He’s no Cassavetes, either. John Cassavetes made arguably the leanest, most subtly subversive of all Badass movies, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. In that film, the ludicrous nature of gangsterism pirouetted around its terrifying implacability just from the way some killers calmly muttered a few orders to Ben Gazzara in a quiet diner. In Nick Cassavetes’s cinema, sincerity and intensity mean one thing: shouting. There’s so much yelling, shrieking, yelping and babbling in Alpha Dog, I started to wonder if the film was originally shot as motion capture or rotoscope footage for one a them animated flicks. Like, maybe all these bleating, hyperactive characters were conceived as literal cartoon “Dogs.” But how to explain Robert Fraisse’s (The Lover) simply gorgeous urban/suburban cinematography, which lends the film a mythic widescreen solidity it doesn’t deserve? Alpha Dog has so many moments and touches verging on directorial competence, I ultimately felt like the most blunted idjit in Truelove’s crew. Moment to moment, I was like, “Whoa, ’fux goin on, man?” One minute, this flick’s sleek and dreamlike, somethin’ like Illtown melting into The Outsiders. Next minute, it’s Cool as Ice directed by Jack Horner.
Two scenes threaten to make Alpha Dog an audience-participation standard to rival Showgirls. One is a delirious “fight” scene. The kidnap victim’s paranoid crackhead brother (Ben Foster) crashes and busts up a house party full of mellow college types he suspects had something to do with Zack’s disappearance. Using martial arts. The awkward, elaborately choreographed brutality he inflicts upon ordinary boys and girls in Old Navy is just staggering. It was like the astonishing long-take car chase in Children of Men, except that instead of a horrified scream, what got caught midway up my throat was an orgasm of laughter. The other scene I’m not sure whether I should applaud or seek some kind of counseling for having endured has Sharon Stone screaming and crying in an off-center psuedo-documentary closeup. In a fat suit. Sounds delicious, but in the film’s narrative context, this moment plays perfectly straight. She’s weeping for her murdered son.
Understand: At my brother’s wedding rehearsal, an organist who resembled Eddie Murphy as Klump in The Nutty Professor destroyed a piano bench just by sitting on it. It all happened in a kind of slow motion, as the spindly wooden legs bowed in and tilted sideways long before Klump realized what was happening and long after everybody with an eyeline toward him knew exactly what was coming and panicked—not for Klump, but at the immensity of the laughter we would have to hold in. That’s what the Stone atrocity, and Alpha Dog in general, does to you: It tickles your ribs relentlessly while whispering in your ear, “Dead children, cocaine, failure, depression, Martin Luther King…”
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.