If you cut the expletives from "Never Die Alone," it's unlikely that this updated blaxploitation flick would run more than 15 minutes. As it is, this thrill-free thriller runs just 82 blue minutes, including opening and closing credits. Yet despite the hot words, the cool jazz, some visual razzmatazz and the combined efforts of director Ernest Dickerson and a couple of well-placed character actors, this 82-minute homage to the sordid, sometimes subversive pleasures of classic blaxploitation feels interminable.
"We reap what we sow," says King David (DMX, a.k.a. Earl Simmons), recently returned to his former stomping and killing grounds. Truer words have rarely been spoken in a movie. A midrange drug dealer and major-league bully, King David has moved back to the nameless big city from which he came after a profitable sojourn in Los Angeles. That's fine as it goes, but given that most of this film was obviously shot in downtown Los Angeles this presents a small narrative hitch since King David's travels clearly don't take him farther than Santa Monica. Still, if you squint your eyes and pretend you don't recognize the various and easily readable downtown street signs whizzing by in the background, you should have no problem with the film's creative geography.
The story, or rather the lack thereof, poses a graver problem. Based on a book by Donald Goines first published in 1974 and adapted to the screen by newcomer James Gibson, "Never Die Alone" tells a story that's as old as Cain or at least the Hollywood gangster movie. As various James Cagney hoods did in the 1930s, DMX's thug climbs the ladder of villainy with barely a glance backward. The money piles up, the dames come and go (in this case Jennifer Sky and Reagan Gomez-Preston), as does lady luck. In most stories like this, a rival thug, fate or the law comes calling on the bad guy, who generally dies with style in a hailstorm of bullets. In better movies, you are usually sorry to see him go. This is not one of the better movies.
Played by DMX in a gravel-pit monotone and a near-total lack of affect, King David cuts an unremittingly tedious swath through "Never Die Alone." As any Cagney or "Sopranos" fan knows, it takes more than a potty mouth and a body count to make a memorable villain; it takes a real story and, as important, a sense that something true, something soul- and consciousness-stirring, is at stake amid the mayhem. A gaping void, King David pointedly fails to capture the imagination. Oddly enough, Dickerson fares better when he points his camera toward supporting actor Michael Ealy, scene-stealing bit player Eric Payne and an underdeveloped subplot about a white writer (David Arquette) with a jones for all things black. With his Wu-Tang and Miles Davis posters, this dude looks tortured from go.
'Never Die Alone'
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, drug use, sexuality and language
Times guidelines: Violence, drugs, sex and lots of swearing
Fox Searchlight Pictures and ContentFilm present a Bloodline Films production in association with White Orchid Films, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director Ernest Dickerson. Writer James Gibson. Based on the book by Donald Goines. Producers Earl Simmons, Alessandro Camon. Director of photography Matthew Libatique. Production designer Christiaan Wagener. Editor Marie France. Music supervisor Frankie Pine. Score George Duke. Additional music Damon "Grease" Blackmon. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes.
In general release.