"Never Die Alone" opens with an overhead, open-casket coffin shot of a pimp and pusher who called himself "King David," and with the dead man's salvation-seeking voice-over in which he muses, "If I had it to do all over again...."
But aside from paying back a fat chunk of money he stole from a drug kingpin some 10 years before, there's not a scrap of evidence in the rest of the film that this guy has any regrets -- even though he continues his insincere chin-wagging about redemption throughout.
Towering, tough and handsome rapper DMX plays King, and he's so good in the role that he probably had to shower twice a day during the shoot just to keep his conscience clean. But since King spends his every scene of this told-in-flashback story earning that pine box and then some, it's more than a little contemptible that the character comes off as some cool, suave, mack-daddy fact of life.
Based on a 1974 novel by the late African-American cult writer Donald Goines, and directed with impressive, 21st century gangsta-noir style and absolutely no fear by Earnest R. Dickerson ("Bones"), the film is gritty, hard and real. There just doesn't seem much point to it, however, since nobody learns or grows or is any better off (psychologically or ethically) when it's all over and the credits roll.
Jumping back two days from the opening scene, King narrates as he returns to New York and tries to return that money to two young thugs sent to collect on behalf of Moon (Clifton Powell), the drug lord. All three men are beating their chests throughout the exchange -- mostly because one of the tough guys (Michael, played with sorrowing street integrity by "Barbershop's" Michael Ealy) has a history with King (and a scar on his face to prove it) -- and inevitably, violence errupts.
A cluelessly Caucasian bystander named Paul (David Arquette) takes King to the hospital, where he dies of stab wounds -- but not before signing over his pink slip (which, I guess he just happened to have in his pocket on the operating table) and his bling-bling in what's apparently supposed to read as an act of selflessness and hope. You see, King kept an audio diary (the tapes are in the car) and Arquette just happens to be a struggling writer looking for that one great story that could give him his big break.
Meanwhile, Moon's even heavier henchmen have already killed both Michael's partner and his teenage sister, whom he was stupid enough to bring along for the cash pick-up. Now both Michael and Paul (although he doesn't know it yet) are being hunted so that no witnesses are left alive -- and Michael is doing some hunting of his own, seeking vengeance.
This present-day part of the story is hardcore drama that Dickerson takes seriously, and not the urban action-movie fare it might sound like. But the majority of "Never Die Alone" involves King's backstory, told through his diary tapes as Paul listens to them on the pimpmobile's stereo while driving around town in the middle of the night.
But does Dickerson really expect anyone to care about this guy's desire for redemption after seeing him double-cross Moon and move to L.A., then use, abuse, pimp and deliberately addict three women, then kill two of them, one of whom he says that he "still loved" -- in a voice-over while raping her? Please. The monster got off easy.
Yet take a step back from the nausea any decent person would feel watching this character portrayed as anything remotely resembling a protagonist or anti-hero, and "Never Die Alone" is a haunting, well-written and powerfully acted film, burdened only by its moral impotence and one irrefutably underwritten contrivance: Aruqette's character.
When he declares, "I need to find out why this man died! For my story!" it's even harder to take him seriously than when it's revealed that he moved to a bad part of town to "inject himself into his milieu for research purposes."