Recently released from a long stint in prison, drug pusher King David (DMX, “Cradle 2 the Grave,” “Belly”) has returned to his old stomping grounds to sort out a debt owed to a vicious drug kingpin called Moon (Clifton Powell, “Next Friday”). Spending his days recounting his life story into a series of cassette tapes, David is murdered by a young thug (Michael Ealy, “Barbershop”) who holds a grudge against the criminal, leaving David’s belongings in the possession of a struggling Caucasian writer (David Arquette) who assisted him to the hospital. Left with hours of recorded history, the writer attempts to piece together King David’s explosive life, finding himself caught up in the late man’s troubles as a result of his efforts.
“Never Die Alone” (IMDb listing) claims to be based off the crime novel by Donald Goines, noted author of multiple “street fiction” titles during the 1970s. For a modern urban film to latch itself on to such credible source material is a rare occurrence, but let’s be serious here. “Alone” is just a vanity picture for hip-hop superstar DMX. A better title for the film would be, “DMX: I’m Awesome.”
Dipping into well-covered terrains of drug running, drug lords, drug addiction, and the celebration of what drug dealing will buy you in life, “Alone” attempts to set itself apart from the competition by hiding behind an artificial “gritty” scrim. Directed by former cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (“Bones,” “Juice”), the filmmaker smothers the film with a snoozy jazz score and grainy, claustrophobic, unpleasant photography (shot in 16 millimeter), featuring images that look like they were balled up in an old blanket and drop into a gravel pit. All this is meant to give “Alone” a thuggy, edgy feel, like the tale was taken directly from the streets. But all it really does is make “Alone” look like a NYU student film that happened to entice some name actors. The photography gets incredibly ridiculous at times.
Sadly, the drama follows suit. The obvious template for the film’s morality posture is Brian DePalma’s urban masterstroke, “Scarface.” “Alone” follows in terms of idolizing a criminal lifestyle in which the lead character doles out vicious suffering to anyone that crosses his path, explained away as simple survival instincts. Goines’ final summation in his work was simply that crime doesn’t pay, a theme that the film initially takes into consideration. But “Alone” never gets around to exploring the noble intentions of King David’s life, instead choosing to glamorize his literally torturous relationships with women (which he gladly hooks on heroin to keep them in line), and the power he derives from being a pusherman. If “Alone” was a film about the swinging lifestyle of crime, then I could accept it as just a poorly made genre exercise. But there are seeds of regret and conscience placed in the opening sequences of the film that never bloom. Dickerson is too caught up in black leather-clad gunmen, sludgy noir, and other clichés of the genre to stay interested in the story.
All this nonsense is performed by DMX with a smug, vaguely interested pokerface, which has dogged him throughout his short career as an actor. Created to show off whatever range the rapper thinks he has, “Alone” is more of a critical reminder that he just can’t act. Co-star Clifton Powell is much more suited to the absurd material, and shamelessly eats up his screen time as the evil drug dealer who wants David dead.
“Never Die Alone” ends on the incredible and ballsy note that we should feel sorry for David’s ultimate fate, with the picture forgetting to earn that beat along the way. “Never Die Alone” is thematically and visually ambitious, but it ultimately amounts to nothing.
Filmfodder Grade: D