A friend of mine once asked why there are so many movies about gangsters and street-level criminals that glorify the vice of drug dealing. I would agree that during any given year dozens of movies about gangs and wealthy drug dealers are produced, but rarely is the drug-dealing hero “glorified” or glamorized by any means. They drive nice cars and brandish glitzy jewelry, but the fun for the most part stops there. The year 2002 produced the overlooked gem “Paid in Full” where the heroes faced tragic consequences. Ernest Dickerson's "Never Die Alone" treats its hero, King David (Earl Simmons a.k.a. DMX), similarly and in fact turns him into a villain.
The film opens with David already dead and in his coffin. Why we see from the beginning that David doesn’t survive the story is best explained as it progresses, and because much of the film requires him it so. Appropriate flashbacks continually bring David back into the action so we never get to dwell on his death that happens two days later. Much of the movie is narrated by David himself like how Tupac narrated his own life in the excellent documentary “Tupac: Resurrection.” In the same way, we forget that the subject is no longer living and for as long as the movie runs, we get to see the person alive and how he lived his life before his tragic end.
David is not a good guy. He pushes drugs in areas not yet corrupted and is unapologetic in his ways. And just when you think we might be able to afford a little sympathy after hearing his life’s details, we see how he deals with his girlfriends. First he baits them like a stalking predator and then gets them high on cocaine. When one threatens to leave, David switches the cocaine vials with ones filled with heroin, effectively getting them hooked and using the girls for business when the clientele list gets short.
David has returned from Los Angeles to New York to pay back his former boss, Moon (Clifton Powell), a high-level kingpin who supplied him with thousands of dollars worth of heroin. When Moon learns that Davis has returned, he sends one of his younger, more promising runners; Mike (“Barbershop’s” Michael Ealy), and another man to collect the $30,000 he is owed. The transaction doesn’t go as planned, and we soon learn about the connection between David and Mike that remains a mystery until either 1.) you figure it out early, or 2.) you wait for the flashback that answers how Mike got that nasty scar on his left cheek.
As I mentioned earlier, much of the film is narrated by David as he’s preparing for what appears to be an autobiography. Each “chapter” is narrated onto cassette tapes which are later stored in his hollowed out Bible. On the night of his death, David runs into a shy white man named Paul (David Arquette), a writer who is looking to complete a story that will get him a reporting job at a big newspaper. We’re not sure if Paul ever expected to run into someone like David, but he does spend most of his time at dangerous bars and drug-spots where he’s the only white guy. Paul eventually gets a hold of the tapes, and while knowing he has put himself in a dangerous situation that could get him killed by messing with the wrong people and getting involved in the wrong business, he decides to finish David’s story .
DMX began his acting career in the enjoyable “Romeo Must Die” as a nightclub owner in a role that was all-too brief. Last year he grabbed a leading role alongside Jet Li in the atrocious film “Cradle 2 Grave.” In my review, I wrote that DMX showed passion as a lead character named Fait but wasn’t quite yet ready for a leading role. He still doesn’t look completely solid, but he’s gotten more comfortable with the experience and he’s now good enough at least to the point where his acting isn’t a distraction. He’s got some room for improvement and I anticipate his next movie that will inevitably have either ‘die’ or ‘grave’ in the title.
James Gibson’s screenplay is based on the novel by ex-con Donald Goines, a man whose erratic life possibly deserves a movie of its own. Like many of the characters he has written over the years in various gritty tales of drugs, crime and prostitution, Goines was tragically killed by gunfire he took while sitting at his typewriter back in 1974. It was reported that Goines wrote dozens of novels from that very spot, where he often drugged up and lived the life of so many of his characters.
“Never Die Alone” is a smart film and one of the few serious dramas marketed to the black audience. I did not have high hopes for the movie as I still remembered “Cradle 2 the Grave,” and wondered how many blacks in this country are avid moviegoers since most films marketed to them are comedies, and not good ones at that. This year has so far brought us the very bad “My Baby’s Daddy” and the almost-good but ultimately disappointing “Barbershop 2.” Oh, I can’t forget “Torque” which didn’t prove to be much better than last year’s dud, “Biker Boyz.”
Before this film started, the audience was treated to no less than three trailers: “Soul Plane,” starring Snoop Dog as the pilot of a purple Beoing-747 with hydraulics, “The Johnson Family,” starring Cedric the Entertainer as a the father of a dysfunctional family on a road trip, and “The Cookout,” with Queen Latifah as a security guard who patrols a rich neighborhood now home to a ghetto family after their son signs a multimillion-dollar contract with the New Jersey Nets. All of them are comedies, and to be sure, I look forward to most of them, but sadly I don’t anticipate many well-told dramas this year like “Never Die Alone.”