- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

Redemption lies at the core of the urban crime thriller “Never Die Alone.” We know this because its antihero, King David (rapper DMX), keeps drilling the notion into our heads even from beyond the grave. But where, oh, where is any trace of legitimate redemption here?

It’s certainly nowhere to be found in James Gibson’s ham-fisted screenplay, and while DMX always brings a palpable edge to his work, his acting fails to evoke so much as a wisp of remorse. The emptiness leaves us with a pretzel of a plot told with such banality it wouldn’t pass muster at a “21 Jump Street” table reading.

Director Ernest Dickerson, once Spike Lee’s partner in cinematography, knows how to layer the jittery street hustles within “Alone.” But look beyond the gobs of attitude, and we’re left with a vessel as hollow as King David’s soul.

Based on cult novelist Donald Goines’ novel of the same name, “Never Die Alone” opens with King David lying in his final resting place. DMX, via his character’s post-mortem monologue, will be our tour guide.

We flash back to two days earlier, and a determined David is tooling around town, talking into a fist-size tape recorder about his passion to set some unknown “things” straight.

He’s also flush with cash, which he hopes will square his ledger with Moon, the local drug king (Clifton Powell). Moon dispatches two low-level toughs, including “Barbershop’s” promising Silver Spring native Michael Ealy as Mike, to retrieve the cash. Mike, though, has an unspoken connection to David, and Mike’s partner is too crazy to let the swap go down without bloodshed.

A mortally wounded David hobbles away but is found by a journalist (David Arquette) who has a kind heart and, inexplicably, a predilection for black culture. The scribe comforts David in his dying moments and is given David’s personal effects. Mr. Arquette rifles through them and finds audio cassettes detailing David’s final days, which the film displays as scattered flashbacks.

Mr. Dickerson launched his directorial career with 1992’s “Juice,” today best known for introducing movie audiences to a raw young actor named Tupac Shakur. A dozen years later, the director’s artistic choices may be regressing.

The source material, if the film’s judiciously developed story line is any guide, deserves far better treatment than what’s rolled out here.

James Gibson’s script delivers some grand unintentional laughs, often sounding like a “Saturday Night Live” gangster sketch. But it’s far from clear that this cast deserved any better than this ludicrous dialogue.

Mr. Arquette punctuates his lines with a mealy-mouthed squint, and the potential DMX showed in less-ambitious projects (2003’s “Cradle 2 the Grave”) evaporates with every coarse line reading.

“Never Die Alone” concocts a depressing underworld of drugs, corruption and betrayal in a way that isn’t easily forgotten. What lingers much longer is the thought of what Mr. Goines’ novel might have become with a different creative team in charge.

**

WHAT: “Never Die Alone”

RATING: R (Gun violence, frequent profanity, drug use and sexual situations)

CREDITS: Directed by Ernest Dickerson. Written by James Gibson, based on Donald Goines’ novel. Original music by DMX, Damon “Grease” Blackman and George Duke. Cinematography by Matthew Libatique.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

WEB SITE: www.foxsearch-light.com/neverdiealone

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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