2 stars (out of 4)
"Never Die Alone," the dark new gangland drama starring rapper DMX, purports to be literate film noir but comes off more like the overwritten project of a film school kid who just memorized his textbook on the style: "For pitch-perfect noir, the tone should be gritty, characters must be morally corrupt, lighting minimal, voiceovers plenty, with wailing horns required."
But director Ernest Dickerson is no film school freshman. He served as cinematographer on seven Spike Lee films, including "She's Gotta Have It" and "Do The Right Thing," and directed 1992's "Juice." This time, adapting a Donald Goines novel, he tries too hard.
After years on the run, drug dealer King David (DMX, a.k.a. Earl Simmons) returns to his hometown of New York seeking redemption by paying back his debt to kingpin Moon (Clifton Powell). Salvation is scuttled when Moon, unimpressed by David's new sense of responsibility but willing to accept $30,000, sends his men Mike (Michael Ealy) and Blue (Antwon Tanner) to collect. Mike, we're told through heavy-handed dialogue, has a tragic history with David. And as foreshadowed by the opening shot of DMX in a coffin, David ends up dead, stabbed to death by Mike a few hours after rolling into town.
He does not, as the title assures, die alone. Paul (David Arquette), the lone white character in the movie - and reportedly, the lone white character in any of Goines' 16 novels - witnesses the attack and drives David to the hospital. Paul, an aspiring journalist who lives in the slums of Harlem by choice, plastering his walls with Miles Davis posters, inherits David's belongings - including audiotapes on which David had recorded his recent life story. Guided by the tapes, the movie delves deeper into the past, with David's voiceover from the grave telling us how, as a drug dealer in L.A., David fed heroin to his unsuspecting cokehead girlfriend in order to keep her under his control. This is David's game, and it's an interesting one until the movie asks us to sympathize by asserting that David's viciousness, which DMX portrays in a one-note performance, comes from his neediness: He just wants to be loved. Well poor baby, don't we all.
When finally the movie catches up to its beginning and David rolls back into New York, he's all about living up to responsibility and making amends because, as he says, "We reap what we sow Hindu cats out in India have a word for it: Karma."
So here we are, left with a newly enlightened David, fresh from doping up his lovers, and doing more bad stuff that I can't reveal without exposing his connection to Mike - but believe me, it's ruthless. He's a real reformed sinner, I tell you.
Matthew Libatique's shadowy camera work is phenomenal, and Ealy turns in a quietly moving performance. But the main crux of the movie - these ideas about fate and deliverance - was way too elusive. A lot of people die in the film - some bad (i.e., deserving), many innocent - and the message seemed to be more about life's randomness than any karmic plan.
Author Goines was a lifelong criminal and heroin addict who was gunned down along with his wife in their Detroit apartment as their two girls looked on. Perhaps his murder was payback for his life of crime; perhaps he reaped what he sowed. But my guess would be his daughters did not. Karma doesn't explain everything, including this movie.
"Never Die Alone"
Directed by Ernest Dickerson; screenplay by James Gibson, based on the novel by Donald Goines; photographed by Matthew Libatique; edited by Stephen Lovejoy; score by George Duke; produced by Earl Simmons, Alessandro Camon. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday, March 26. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: R (strong violence, drug use, sexuality and language).
King David - DMX
Paul - David Arquette
Mike - Michael Ealy
Blue - Antwon Tanner
Moon - Clifton Powell