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`ALPHA DOG' STORY HAS FRIGHTENING BARK, VICIOUS BITE.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

Writer-director Nick Cassavetes enjoyed unusual access to many of the figures involved with the murder of San Fernando Valley teenager Nicholas Markowitz. That really comes across in ``Alpha Dog,'' Cassavetes' fictionalized take on the sex-drug-and-crime spree that led up to the 15-year-old's death and the international manhunt for Jesse James Hollywood, the killers' alleged ringleader. It often feels like the real incident is happening right before our eyes.

Changing names and locations -- ``Alpha Dog'' mostly takes place in the Inland Empire -- Cassavetes gives us an extraordinarily intimate and spontaneous-seeming look at young people gone really wild, as well as their oblivious, overprotective and/or bad-example parents. The emotional and power dynamics within this ever-changing group of stoners, thrill-seekers, hardened criminals and wannabes ring truer (and often funnier) than what's found in most wayward youth dramas.

True, some dialogue sounds much too clever to have really come out of the mouths of these tarnished babes. And while practically everybody nails their character to a scarily convincing extent, some of the actors do occasionally lay it on thick. (You've got the chops, Justin, and nearly perfect pitch when you're not trying to prove all that you can do).

But overall they create a redolent teenage underworld so tempting, dangerous and honestly stupid that you can easily imagine your younger self -- or your children -- eagerly falling into it.

The fact that these are mostly white kids from various strata of the suburban middle class probably gives the film a more alarming, how-could-this-

have-happened vibe than, say, inner-city crime stories where the environment can take the blame.

``Alpha Dog'' is sure to inspire much clucking about the wages of neglectful or permissive parenting, and some of that is applicable. But really, if this movie proves anything, it's that a lot of kids just have a good time being bad, and they're going to figure out ways to do that regardless of what kind of home they come from. Wayward-youth movies really don't get more honest than that.

Of course, some fatherly sins flow directly into the offspring. The movie opens with one Sonny Truelove (a perfectly scuzzy Bruce Willis) growling his way through a video interview about his wanted son Johnny.

(The film will often break out into such sessions with assorted witnesses, suspects and, for lack of a better term, loved ones).

Johnny's the J.J. Hollywood stand-in, played by the pugnaciously charismatic Emile Hirsch. Like his shady dad, Johnny runs a dope-dealing concern with what he considers an iron fist. But when just-as-tough tweaker Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) burns Johnny on a deal and meets his intimidation with violent escalation, Johnny's boys seize Jake's adolescent half-brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) off the street and hold him as collateral.

Though initially as frightened as he should be, Zack ends up being baby-sat by friendly Truelove crony Frankie (Justin Timberlake) at a posh Palm Springs party house packed with hot chicks, the latest video games, and all the booze and drugs a kid could want. Thing is, Zack was running away from his controlling mother (Sharon Stone, overdoing it but compelling) when he got snatched, and his captivity is like a dream come true that he has absolutely no desire to escape from.

This is where the film shifts into fascinating behavioral gear, as it gradually dawns on the otherwise in-control Johnny that he's really in trouble this time, especially as more and more stoned-out kids learn the ``stolen boy'' story. Some just think that's hot and can't wait to get into Zack's pants. Others, getting wind of the frantic search brewing for the boy, undergo perhaps the first serious moral crisis of their lives. Still others conspire, with different degrees of reluctance and determination, to try to save their own butts.

These are by far the most interesting people who've ever populated a Nick Cassavetes. There's really no comparison between his father John's far more intense character explorations and ``Alpha Dog,'' but after such melodramatic drivel as ``John Q'' and ``The Notebook,'' it's heartening to see Nick's facility for naturalistic drama and unique relationships emerge.

Whatever he observed in those true-life figures these roles are based on, Cassavetes sure knew how to apply it to one nasty but exhilarating work of art.

Bob Strauss (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss@dailynews.com

ALPHA DOG - Three stars

(R: violence, sex, nudity, language, drug use, children in jeopardy)

Starring: Ben Foster, Shawn Hatosy, Emile Hirsch, Christopher Marquette, Sharon Stone, Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis, Anton Yelchin.

Director: Nick Cassavetes.

Running time: 1 hr. 57 min.

Playing: In wide release.

In a nutshell: Disturbingly persuasive fictionalization of the Valley murder case.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Unaware of what soon will befall him, kidnapped teen Zach (Anton Yelchin, left) finds himself being baby-sat by Frankie (Justin Timberlake) at a Palm Springs party in ``Alpha Dog.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 12, 2007
Words:809
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