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Film / Alpha Dog

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"You wanna know what this is all about? You can say it's about drugs or guns or disaffected youth, or whatever you like. But this whole thing is about parenting. It's about taking care of your children. You take care of yours, I take care of mine."
Sonny Truelove

Alpha Dog is a 2006 crime drama based on the true story of low-level drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood and his involvement in the kidnapping/murder of Nicholas Markowitz in 2000.

It stars Emile Hirsch as Johnny Truelove, an impulsive and cocky Psychopathic Man Child marijuana dealer living in the late '90s Southern California. Johnny, alongside best bud Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake), suckup Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy), and a host of other friends and business associates, spends his day-to-day life partying, getting high, and generally living the hip-hop thug life he idealizes from music, movies, and video games, much to the dismay of Johnny's father and supplier, Sonny (Bruce Willis). Where Johnny goes, the money, the friends, and the girls follow.

But when a drug deal goes awry, a friendly meeting in Johnny's house between him and Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) turns into a violent dispute. Jake owes Johnny $1,200, but Jake won't pay. In their eagerness to get revenge on Jake, Johnny and his friends kidnap his 15-year-old brother Zack (Anton Yelchin).

Unfortunately, if there's one thing Johnny really does poorly, it's long-term planning. We see a three-day account of the events that follow as Johnny and Frankie desperately attempt to find a way to resolve the situation peacefully. As it stands, all of them are looking at life in prison. But no one knows what to do with the kid, who seems oblivious to the seriousness of the situation in which he now finds himself.

As their lives crumble, Johnny and Frankie realize that every choice has a consequence...

This film provides examples of:

  • The '90s: Set in 1999 (even though Markowitz's murder happened on August 9, 2000). Zack at one point is even watching the first Austin Powers movie (1997).
  • Adaptational Name Change: All the characters have different names from the Real Life people involved in the events its based on. That didn't stop the real Jesse James Hollywood's attorney from trying to block the release of the film.
  • An Aesop: The gangster lifestyle portrayed in the movie is for idiots, and is populated by people who'll burn you at the first sign of trouble.
  • Affably Evil: With the exception of Johnny and maybe Elvis, all of the gangsters. This goes a long way to explaining why Zack doesn't want to leave.
  • Ambiguously Gay: There's a scene where the gang makes fun of Elvis, saying he's in love with Johnny. He eventually denies it, but his body language and mannerisms imply that there might be some truth to it.
  • Anachronism Stew: An Xbox was shown even though the console wasn't widely available until 2001, and the film (based on a crime that occurred in 2000) takes place in late 1999.
  • Antagonist Title: The title refers to the kidnapping's ringleader Johnny Truelove, or really what he imagines himself to be.
  • Asshole Victim: Somewhat applies to Elvis once he realizes how much trouble he is in. He tries to beg Pick for help but Pick refuses to help him since he used his mom's car to drive to the area that he would be excecuting Zach at. Soon enough, Elvis is then cornered and arrested shortly after and is sentenced to Death Row. Given that he showed no mercy in killing Zack it's hard to feel sorry for him.
  • Ax-Crazy: Elvis becomes more and more grim when the news of who needs to carry out the hit on Jake reaches him.
  • Badass Boast: Jake gives Johnny a phone conversation he won't soon forget.
  • Based on a True Story: Oh God, yes it was. The victim's mother Susan Markowitz (fictionalized in the film as Olivia Mazursky) wrote in a book published after the film's release that 90% of it was true.
  • Berserk Button: Making fun of Johnny's height is a very good way to drastically reduce your life expectancy.
  • Blatant Lies: When Susan confronts Frankie about Zack being dead, Frankie lies through his teeth about not knowing (since he was there at the murder scene), not having anything to do with it, and about dropping him off.
  • Boisterous Weakling: Johnny acts like and thinks he's a tough guy but is rather hopeless in a fight with no one to back him up. Early in the film, he tries to kill Jake, only for Jake to immediately gain the upper hand and nearly drown Johnny in his own swimming pool.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Jake Mazursky is a Jew, but he and his girlfriend appear to be Neo-Nazis, with several white supremacy tattoos on their bodies and a Hitler poster decorating his kitchen. Played for laughs more than anything, with her doing a Nazi salute then goose-stepping while wearing a pillow when his (equally Jewish) brother Zack pays them a visit.
  • Butt-Monkey: Elvis, from most of Johnny’s group. In one scene, they resort to throwing homophobic insults to make fun of his kiss-ass attitudes towards Johnny.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Averted. Zack's Tae Kwon Do skills are displayed in a throwaway scene yet they have no practical application as Zack is led to his death.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: This film has one of the highest uses of the word "Fuck" at a staggering 367, or 3.11 uses per minute.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Jake and Johnny. And then Jake beats the shit out of an entire party's worth of people.
  • Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: An extreme aversion. Right from the start of the film, it's very clear that Johnny and his gang are a bunch of loser assholes that only an idiot would want to emulate, though Zack himself admires them and grows to enjoy his "kidnapping." Just to drive the point home further, Johnny's gang eventually murders Zach, making him Too Dumb to Live.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: As mentioned in Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster! above, the film goes out of its way to show how foolish it is to emulate the lifestyle of a drug-dealing street gangster.
  • Dirty Coward:
    • Johnny presents himself as a Fake Ultimate Hero, but he hides when Jake breaks into his house despite being armed, refuses to de-escalate the kidnapping because he's afraid of prison, and becomes a Nervous Wreck when the police takes down his gang and has multiple off-screen freak-outs as he gets more paranoid that he will be caught.
    • Elvis gets more confident when given the order to kill Zack, but when the murder is discovered he starts panicking and begging for help.
  • Dirty Old Man: During the scene at the steak house, Johnny's godfather and Sonny's accomplice Cosmo tries to hit on Jake's girlfriend Wanda, much to Sonny's chagrin.
  • Downer Ending: Zack is killed at the end of his kidnapping and Johnny's gang completely falls apart as a result. If anything, the only real bittersweet element to it is that those directly involved are at least implicated, so it's impossible to feel sorry for most of the other main characters since the rest of them are * Asshole Victims at best.
  • Do You Want to Copulate?: Holed up in a motel room with nothing else to do, Angela casually asks Johnny if he wants to have sex.
  • Drugs Are Bad: This movie did a pretty good job of hammering the point home.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Most of the wannabe criminals in Truelove's crew have girlfriends or family members they care about. Tiko is even arrested watching television with his entire family when the police break down the door, and Truelove is celebrating his girlfriend's birthday during Zack's murder.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Frankie, Keith, and to an extent Elvis genuinely like Zack and are horrified at Johnny's utter heartlessness (not that it stops them from doing the deed anyway).
  • Face Death with Despair: Zack breaks down crying and desperately pleads and begs as they put the tape over his mouth all while Frankie and Keith are in tears.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Johnny likes to make himself out to be a tough resourceful leader. But in reality, he is cowardly, short-tempered, and deeply stupid, rarely thinking of the consequences of his actions.
  • Freudian Excuse: The film shows the parents being every bit as indulgent and hedonistic as their children or at the very least unconcerned about the lifestyle they embrace. Sonny, for instance, pretty much raised Johnny to be a dealer and yet takes no responsibility for his part in the crimes committed. Zack's parents, in contrast, are overprotective and rule every part of his life, pushing him towards the other end. In fact, there doesn't seem to be any good parental figures.
  • From Bad to Worse: Facing life in prison for kidnapping? Not to worry, just upgrade to homicide and surely it'll all work out.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Sonny raised Johnny to be a drug dealer and acts as his supplier in the present. While he is strongly opposed to the gang's kidnapping of Zack when he eventually finds out about it, he did facilitate Johnny's criminal career and set the stage for those events to happen.
  • Hate Sink: Johnny is a rare example of the main character being this, being the most unlikable of the main characters by far. He's arrogant, violent, rude, abusive, manipulative, and, oh yeah, he organized the murder of a 15-year-old boy over $1,200. When he gets arrested at the end of the movie and has the possibility of getting the death penalty if found guilty, you're not gonna feel sorry for him.
  • Hope Spot: Quite a few actually making the ending all the more heart-wrenching.
    • At one point, Frankie actually offers Zack a chance to be free from his captivity and go home, but Zack, not wanting to exacerbate the situation for his brother, chooses to stay ultimately sealing his fate a couple of days later.
      • Prior to that, Olivia, Zack's mom, tells Jake she'll write a check for whatever he owes to Johnny, but Jake tells her "its not as simple as that" and promises her he'll find Zack.
    • Johnny is told he'd possibly get a light sentence of two years (as opposed to 25-to-life imprisonment) by his lawyer and his dad if he turns himself in and calls off the hit on Zack. They came really close to making him do it, but Johnny resists and Zack is murdered.
  • Hypocritical Humor: The guys make fun of a rap group for being posers, stating "The only thing these guys are 'shooting' is music videos," even though they act exactly like them.
  • I Have This Friend: Johnny Truelove calls his lawyer and asks what kind of trouble "his friend" is in for kidnapping the little brother of someone who owes him money. He doesn't take the bad news well since he's referring to himself.
  • Jerkass: Where to start?
    • Johnny Truelove, while not an entirely bad guy, is thoroughly unlikeable. He only puts any real thought into his job when he calls his lawyer about his own ass on the line that he shamelessly tries to cover throughout the film, and repeatedly shows himself to be a liability, smarmily in denial of that fact.
    • Elvis, though initially Just Following Orders, firmly becomes one after his desire to kill Zack sinks in, becoming demanding and unhinged.
  • Karma Houdini: Subverted.
    • Johnny looks like he has escaped capture for his crimes until an epilogue informs us that he was captured and faces the death penalty if found guilty (See Ripped from the Headlines below.)
    • Assuming what happened to the Real Life criminals also applied to their film counterparts, this would mean that Frankie would be paroled in 2013 and that Truelove never got the death penalty but is still serving life without parole. So this ultimately may be in effect.
  • Knight Templar Big Brother: When Jake learns that Johnny has kidnapped his little brother to get back at Jake, he promises his estranged stepmom that he will do anything to get Zack back. Jake immediately goes on a rampage, crashes a local house party held by some of Truelove's friends by beating up half the people in the room and when Truelove calls him up, Jake threatens Truelove with enacting brutal and painful vengeance unless he releases Zack. Deconstructed, however, in that this doesn't help Zack's return at all and just prompts Truelove to relocate with his little brother.
  • Lima Syndrome: Downplayed and ultimately subverted. Frankie comes to bond with Zack and even quietly offers to let him go free. He also balks at Johnny when he proposes they kill him. When the time to carry out said kill comes, tears are streaming down Frankie's face.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: If you can't get it up with Olivia Wilde, you are far more stressed out than you'd like to admit.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: After the murder is discovered, Johnny Truelove becomes a wanted man and goes on the run and flees with his girlfriend as far as Albuquerque. Once there, he realizes he is not safe anywhere and flees the hotel he is hiding at as soon as he sees his girlfriend being arrested and gets an old friend to drive him back to California where he isn't seen after that. 5 years later, Johnny is finally caught and arrested in Paraguay and knowing the real life case, is sentenced to life in prison without parole.
    • Same can pretty much also apply to Tiko, Keith, Elvis, and Frankie when they get arrested.
  • Missed Him by That Much: The police actually track down Johnny to the motel where he's hiding out with his girlfriend, but he just went out for a pack of smokes when they knock on his door. His girlfriend is arrested for aiding and abetting, but Johnny escapes again, eventually deciding to Run for the Border.
  • The Mob Boss Is Scarier: Frankie is very reluctant to carry out Johnny's order to murder Zack, but Elvis convinces him they have no choice, saying that if they disobey him, they are risking retaliation from Sonny Truelove, Johnny's father and supplier. Ironically, Sonny is completely against the idea and intervenes to try to stop it, not least because Johnny and his gang are already on the police's radar as prime suspects.
  • Mood Whiplash: Zack is having the time of his life up until it comes time for Johnny and Frankie to do something about him...
  • My Beloved Smother: Part of the reason Zack doesn't take the obvious opportunities for escape is the freedom he feels at finally being away from his overprotective mother.
  • Naked First Impression: As Jake lets in his little brother Zack inside his apartment, Jake's girlfriend walks up to them wearing nothing except for a pillow.
  • Naked on Arrival: Jake's girlfriend is introduced in the movie while the two of them are having sex until they are interrupted by Zack showing up outside of their apartment. This leads to the Naked First Impression as mentioned above.
  • Nice Guy: Zack, despite embracing the lifestyle, cares very much for his friends and is more than willing to accept blame for other people's mistakes. Frankie is something of an example as his behavior seems mostly influenced by those around him. He is a dick around Johnny but much nicer around others.
  • Not-So-Harmless Villain: Elvis is initially a Butt-Monkey forced to do embarrassing and menial tasks for Johnny to work off his debt, but he's the guy who pulls the trigger that ends Zack's life.
  • One-Man Army: As screwed up as Jake Mazursky's life is, he's a very brutal fighter. As soon as he finds out his brother has been kidnapped by Johnny Truelove, he bursts into a house party regularly frequented by Truelove, and when the party-goers get hostile at his confrontational tone, he beats up half the room.
  • Only Sane Woman: When Susan learns that Zack has been kidnapped, she immediately begins panicking and trying to make everyone understand how serious it is. Everyone else, including Zack, look at her like she's crazy, and go on hanging out like nothing's happened. Eventually, she also finds out about Zack's death in the news and pretty much rats out the Truelove gang to the police.
  • Parental Neglect:
    • Zack's overbearing mother accuses his father of being too hands-off with Zack, and states that that parenting style is the reason Jake turned out the way he did.
    • When the one sane woman tries to talk to her mother about the kidnapping she gets blown off, as her mother is only interested in having drug-fueled sex for her anniversary.
    • Essentially all of the major characters are teenagers who party, smoke, drink, and do drugs with their parents either nowhere to be seen or actively encouraging their activity.
  • Psychopathic Man Child: Johnny Truelove is an impulsive, shortsighted, criminally dumb wannabe gangster trying to project a "tough guy" image. He kidnaps Zack on a whim, all the while threatening people wherever he goes and doesn't realize how many witnesses he creates because of his own poor planning. He doesn't even keep tabs on the murder he orders while going out with his girlfriend and having fun, and rejects the option his father offers to release Zack and spend minimal jail time even though he has no other plan himself. He remains elusive for so long only because of blind luck.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: And an extra scene was filmed and added to the end when Jesse James Hollywood (the real-life criminal in which the character of Johnny Truelove is based on) was finally arrested in real life.
  • Run for the Border: With the cops fast on his heels for his role in Zack's murder, Johnny decides he needs to leave the country, initially planning to go to Canada, then Mexico, but both times he has a Villainous Breakdown off-screen and refuses because of the likelihood that he will be caught. He eventually escapes to Paraguay with help from Sonny and his godfather, where he's arrested 5 years later. (The real Jesse James Hollywood fled to Brazil.)
  • Sarcastic Title: Johnny Truelove would very much like to be top dog, but he is shown to be an idiot wannabe gangster and Dirty Coward whose spur-of-the-moment kidnapping and later murder of Zack Mazursky was an overreach that puts him and his entire crew in jail.
  • Skinny Dipping: Alma (Amber Heard) and Julie (Amanda Seyfried) do this in a swimming pool, and encourage Zack to join them.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Johnny Truelove. He slings some weed around and suddenly he thinks he's the king.
  • Stupid Crooks: Kidnapping a 15-year old boy in broad daylight over a feud with his brother is stupid enough, but anyone in Johnny's gang thinking murdering Zack would alleviate their situation and that they wouldn't get caught and eventually receive capital punishment for it is truly deserving of a Darwin Award. This is especially open-and-shut considering there are 38 witnesses to this. Johnny is actually given an offer by his lawyer to possibly serve minimum jail time to return Zack safely and plead guilty, but chooses not to simply for not wanting to do any jail time at all. Even dumber for Johnny, his father (and likely the other family and maybe their lawyer) knows Johnny ordered Zack killed, and his father pleads with him to call off the hit. Johnny refuses, claiming that Zack is probably already free because his gang are just a bunch of fuck ups. He seems to literally be putting faith in his criminal partners being idiots.
  • Tattooed Crook: Almost everyone sports a lot of ink, but Frankie and Jake really stand out.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Pretty much every young person is at best an indifferent slacker and at worst a violent sociopath. Not that the adults are any better, mind you.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Zack taking his own kidnapping so lightly no doubt contributed to his death. While he's still a teenager, he's old enough to comprehend the gravity of the situation.
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: Things quickly begin to spiral out of control and an impulsive kidnapping leads to a shocking conclusion.
  • Two-Person Pool Party: A three-person pool party, actually. Zack makes out with Julie and Alma in a pool they break into.
  • Villain of Another Story: Johny's godfather Cosmo (Harry Dean Stanton). The real person he's based on, Jon Roberts, was an associate of the Medellin Cartel. Although there are hints to his criminal past, in this film he just functions as an old friend and confidante of the Truelove family. He also helps Johnny escape to Paraguay.
  • Villain Protagonist: Johhny and his friends are the main characters, as well as drug dealing screw-ups who kidnap a teenage boy. Eventually, they kill him.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Johnny has an offscreen one at the Mexican border and Elvis has one when he realizes how much shit he is in.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The legal consequences to the individual members of Truelove/Hollywood's crew as a result of the kidnapping and murder of Zack Mazursky/Nick Markowitz are shown at the end. Tiko Martinez/William Skidmore gets 9 years for taking part in the initial kidnapping, Keith Stratten/Graham Pressley is convicted of Murder 2 and detained until 25, Frankie Ballenbacher/Jesse Rugge gets life imprisonment for aggravated kidnapping, and Elvis Schmidt/Ryan Hoyt is on death row for Murder 1. Johnny Truelove/Jesse James Hollywood himself initially escaped the country, but was finally apprehended after eluding the authorities for five years and if convicted, faces the death penalty.