`Never Die' never rises above the bling, bang

Rapper DMX stars as a drug dealer in this gritty flick


March 26, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC



America's #1 Best Selling Black Author" proclaims the cover of late pulp writer Donald Goines' 1974 novel Never Die Alone. It's a depressing proclamation no matter how many French cultists prop it up with lavish blurbs like "flashing talent straight from the streets of the lost" (L'Express) or "His stories almost have an ethnographic value" (La Liberte de l'Est).

Underline the "almost." Goines, a gangster author who's now a hero to gangsta rappers, wrote two novels behind bars and 16 in the four years between his release in 1970 and his murder in 1974. His publisher, Holloway House, states, "Like all Goines novels, Never Die Alone is based on truth." Maybe so, but Goines has embellished the truth with so much macho street glam that an East Coast ghetto comes off as an urban shooting range out of some underground comic book, and Hollywood resembles an NC-17 theme park.

Director Ernest Dickerson and screenwriter James Gibson have reshaped Never Die Alone into a trident-shaped tale with a lame attempt at an Oedipal sting. DMX plays a ruthless L.A. drug dealer, King David, who returns to an unnamed Eastern city (in the book, New York) to buy back the good graces of his one-time supplier, Moon (Clifton Powell). Michael Ealy is Mike, Moon's loyal collector and hit man, who has his own mysterious reason to hate King David. And David Arquette plays Paul, an aspiring Hemingway who witnesses Mike's knifing of King David and gets drawn into the man's midnight-hour attempt to achieve redemption.

In the book, Paul never finds out why Mike sticks a blade into David; in the movie, that revelation provides a final pay-off (and an unexpected reprieve for one character). Otherwise, Dickerson and Gibson have stayed true to Goines' cheesy omniscience. Here's Goines' King David, for example, on women: "They all like a little coke now and then. It makes them freakish, so they say, but if the truth was known, they were freakish before they ever snorted cocaine."

That's what passes for unblinkered observation in the book and the movie, and, sadly, it's central to the plot. King David acts out a rabid masculine power trip - he likes to slip his women heroin when they think they're getting cocaine, addicting them to a drug he knows they can't handle.

Goines and the filmmakers play this practice for voyeuristic cheap thrills, whether King David punishes the abandoned mother of his child for guilt-tripping him, turns a bikini-clad white L.A. TV starlet into his entertainment-world connection, or wreaks revenge on the ebony beauty of his dreams for daring to call him a small-timer.

Only the viciousness of this lust-laced misogyny has any sting, however sordid. The rest of the plot depends on hand-me-down shoot-'em-ups in parking garages and hot tubs - stuff that would have fit into blaxploitation films of Goines' early-'70s era. And, perhaps to disguise the fact that California and East Coast settings were shot in L.A., Dickerson, formerly a master cinematographer, has instructed his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, to shoot these locales in such harsh grain that streetlights flutter like clouds of fireflies.

Partly because of this apocalyptic look, you always expect the worst: When you see an ice-pick drop from a character's hand you know it will land in someone else's eye. Even in this shock schlock, only the murder of a female carries any weight, and that's because she's a schoolgirl looking pretty in her uniform. This movie will bring out the worst sadistic impulses in unfocused pubescent boys.

What's supposed to make the movie "literate" and "moral" is that Paul, who for some reason initially sees a tortured nobility in the dying King David, comes to realize that he deserved to die. Ealy (who was also terrific in Barbershop 2) brings his own soulfulness into a nothing part. But most of the film simply wallows in gangsta hyperbole - it's all bling bling, bang bang.

Never Die Alone

Starring DMX, David Arquette, Michael Ealy

Directed by Ernest Dickerson

Rated R (Strong violence, drug use, sexuality and language)

Released by Fox Searchlight

Time 89 minutes

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