Alpha Dog (2007) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I saw this film in a theater. Normally I only go to a theater to see top-drawer films that I can't wait to see on DVD, and Alpha Dog normally wouldn't make the cut by a long shot, but I went to it for three reasons: (1) I was on vacation and wanted to see a movie; (2) it was a substandard week for movie releases and Pan's Labyrinth was sold out, so this was the best remaining choice; (3) my son and daughter were interested in this, based upon the TV ads.

It is a barely-fictionalized account of a murder which took place in 2000 among drugged-out youths in Hollywood. Two suburban thugs were feuding over some money which one owed the other from a drug deal. The drug dealer spotted the other guy's 15-year-old half-brother, and decided to kidnap him for leverage on the debt. He soon discovered that kidnapping is not an internal matter between druggies, but is considered a major crime, which means he was looking at some hard jail time. He paid some of his cohorts to dispose of the problem - the problem being the boy, and the disposal method being murder.

The film faced legal challenges before it could be released, because the real-life drug dealer, whose improbable real name is Jesse James Hollywood, is currently awaiting trial in California. His lawyers argued that the film prejudiced his case and tended to prevent a fair trial. They also argued that the district attorney had a conflict of interest, and they seem to have a point. Santa Barbara County Deputy District Attorney Ronald J. Zonen, who had already prosecuted the co-defendants, opened up his Jesse Hollywood files to the filmmakers and served as an unpaid consultant on the film. The California Supreme Court is currently reviewing the motion to dismiss Zonen from Hollywood's trial.

The real case had several fascinating elements:

  • The victim hung out with his kidnappers for days, partying and playing video games with them. The kidnappers were originally treating the abduction as if it were a private matter between them and the victim's brother, ignoring the gravity with which it would be treated by the legal authorities.

  • Something like four dozen people were aware that the boy had been kidnapped. If any one of them had called the police, the kid would be alive today.

  • The guy who actually pulled the trigger did it to erase a drug debt for a relatively small amount of money.

  • The kid who was kidnapped was basically a nice suburban boy from a good home and had nothing to do with the drug deals of his half-brother.

  • When the drug dealer found out how much trouble he was in, he fled to Brazil and lived there for some years, thus avoiding the manhunt in the United States, where he became the youngest man ever to make the FBI's most wanted list. He would finally be arrested by Brazilian authorities almost five years after the murder.

Although the characters' names have been changed for the film, the script stays quite close to the actual events. The only real dramatic license taken by the screenplay is that the victim's half-brother (the guy who owed money to the drug dealer) is turned into a much more colorful character than he actually was. If you're curious about the case, you can catch up on the background here:

  • Here is Court TV's account of the case, which is thorough.

  • Here is the Wikipedia entry for Jesse James Hollywood, the ringleader of the killers.

Alpha Dog was a project with a high enough profile to persuade some major stars to waive their big fees and check their egos to play minor roles. Bruce Willis has a few lines as the drug dealer's father. Sharon Stone has an even less important role as the victim's mother, but her role has a quirky element to it. She plays the earlier scenes with her normal physical appearance, but she is all but unrecognizable in later scenes, apparently wearing a leftover "fat bastard" suit from Austin Powers 2. (The real-life mother gained some sixty pounds after her son's fate was discovered.)

My daughter, previously unaware of the film's background,  asked me during the closing credits whether it was based on reality. On the way home, she said, "I didn't think it was a very good movie until I realized that it all really happened." I liked the film more than she did, but in terms of summarizing the key point, I think she pretty much hit the nail on the head. If this story were completely or almost completely fictional, it would likely have come and gone virtually unnoticed, ala Bully, which treated a similar subject some years ago.  It might even have gone straight to video. As the Austin Chronicle wrote, it's too trashy to be serious and too serious to be trashy. The film is fairly slick, but there's not much dramatic suspense and the characters are all unsympathetic except for the victim. I think one must concede, however, that the film really does acquire a certain fascinating aura when one knows that the script is very close to what really happened. I call this the Amityville Horror Effect, based upon that movie (original version) which became quite a sensation because audiences thought it was a true story and were curious about the inexplicable events of the case. Amityville Horror lost all its appeal and became just another grade-B horror film when the house's owners finally confessed to having fabricated the story. When one watches the original version of The Amityville Horror today, it is not possible to see how it could ever have been a hit film. Alphadog isn't exactly in the same boat. Unlike the Amityville fabrication, Alpha Dog's story really is true (more or less), so its appeal will not completely disappear in the future, but its limited success will probably mystify some people some years hence, when its topicality has passed.

DVD INFO not yet announced



  • Olivia Wilde - all

  • Amanda Seyfried and Heather Wahlquist - breasts

The Critics Vote ...

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C, a watchable film that held my attention. On the other hand, if I thought it was completely fictional, I would probably have said C-.

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