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Friday, March 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Ted Fry
Director Ernest Dickerson made his name as Spike Lee's cameraman and has since become an accomplished journeyman auteur in his own right. His intention here was clearly to bring classic film noir sensibilities to a more modern genre.
The biggest noir device is having the story's narration delivered by the main character from beyond the grave. Superstar-rapper-turned-actor DMX plays King David, a loathsome drug dealer who has returned home to New York from a crime spree in Los Angeles in an attempt to make amends for all the bad things he's done in life.
Unfortunately that evil past catches up on his first night back in town, and he's left dying in a gutter only to have his legacy unfold in flashbacks. These come to us via a series of audio cassettes he's left behind as a swaggering autobiography.
His story is telegraphed through Paul (David Arquette), a good Samaritan who whisks the mortally wounded (and entirely undeserving) David to the hospital in the drug dealer's own gaudy Stutz Blackhawk. Paul is an aspiring writer obsessed with black culture, so it's his lucky break when David makes the deathbed bequeathal of all his possessions to Paul wallet, watch, car and secret cache of telltale tapes. This book will write itself!
But because of his final encounter with the murdered thug, Paul's life is also now in danger.
In a series of flashbacks that are intercut with Paul's run from the gangsta bad guys, David relates his reign as an amoral stone criminal, and it is truly appalling.
The detritus of David's career as an egomaniacal drug lord include at least three women who are abused, battered and thrown away, all with a smirk of triumph. Two of them end up dead from a cocktail of heroin and battery acid supplied by David, who was responsible for getting them hooked on drugs in the first place.
David has a vast customer base in Hollywood and lives a hedonistic life racking up bad karma. Dickerson contrasts the sun-drenched California segments with grainy, jittery images for the New York story, throwing in lots of shadows and camera bravado (sideways, upside down) to add to the noir imbalance.
The script is based on a 1970s novel by Donald Goines, a literary underdog who churned out works of pulp fiction between stints in jail and scoring heroin. Akin to an African-American James M. Cain, Goines could still be the basis of a significant film adaptation, but not with DMX and Arquette.
If not for the excessive melodrama, lousy dialogue, clumsy acting and generally nasty vibe, "Never Die Alone" could have had the kind of distinctive edge that made urban street dramas like "Juice" (directed by Dickerson), "Menace II Society," "Boyz N the Hood" and "Fresh" noteworthy and even commercial. Dickerson does his talent a disservice by reaching for an operatic tone that's not supported by the material or his resources.
Ted Fry: firstname.lastname@example.org
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