Review: Never Die Alone

It's an entertaining parody of the ludicrous code-of-the-streets machismo celebrated by classic gangster cinema and hip-hop culture.

Never Die Alone
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

From the cash money chapter of the book of “King” David (DMX): “A quarter of a mil was good then, and it sure as hell still is now!” Greenbacks—earning ‘em, stealing ‘em, flaunting ‘em—are the fuel that keep gangster nation rolling in Ernest R. Dickerson’s Never Die Alone, an instant camp classic that subscribes to heroin kingpin Moon’s (Clifton Powell) belief that the most important things in life are “money, pussy, and money.” Gravel-throated rapper DMX stars in this grimy crime opera as King David, an Armani-wearing badass who’s returned to his old hood seeking redemption from those (including Moon) he screwed over years earlier. Problem is, David’s former cohorts are still raw about David absconding to Los Angeles with their heroin, and wind up fatally knifing him. The ghetto emperor’s legacy is resurrected, however, by wigger journalist Paul (David Arquette), who valiantly tries to save David’s life and, in return, is bequeathed the thug’s gold watches and chains, pimped-out ride and audiotape autobiography. As Paul listens to the tapes, we’re treated to flashbacks—shot in grainy, perpetually cockeyed widescreen, and scored to a fusion of bluesy saxophone and thumping club beats—of David’s drug-dealing lifestyle in Cali.

The film (based on a novel by David Goines) awkwardly flip-flops between David’s past exploits and Moon’s present-day attempts to kill both Paul and a goody-two-shoes employee (Mike Ealy), and most scenes are embellished with DMX’s grandiloquent and misogynistic soliloquies. DMX’s gruff voice-over sermons during these trips down memory lane sound like one of his album’s spoken word interludes (“We reap what we sow. Payback’s a motherfucker”), and his performance is a compendium of tough-guy postures and nasty epithets directed at women. Out on the sunny West Coast, David becomes a big shot selling Moon’s smack, and becomes involved with a blond actress (Jennifer Sky) who he dismissively describes as looking “like a fucking movie star…TV anyway.” Soon thereafter, he hooks up with a luscious African-American beauty (Reagen Gomez-Preston) who, in a fit of temporary madness, calls her new man “small-time.” David uses ladies like inflatable sex toys, and when he tires of their company, he either packs their bags for them or, if they’ve been foolish enough to try and threaten him with going to the cops, replaces their cocaine with acidic dust from a car battery.

If all this sounds morally reprehensible, that’s because it is. But Never Die Alone—with its James Bond-ish title, Carlito’s Way framing structure, Godfather-esque finale corpse montage, and the presence of a scar-faced character—primarily operates as an entertaining parody of the ludicrous code-of-the-streets machismo celebrated by classic gangster cinema, hip-hop culture and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Dickerson’s c amera slowly pans from Juanita’s ass to David’s glistening gold watch in a perfect illustration of Gangsta Heaven, but the film’s defining images are of DMX’s deodorant-smeared armpits (as white as the blow he’s peddling) and Arquette’s futile attempts to act at home in an apartment decorated with Wu-Tang Clan and Miles Davis posters. Never Die Alone discards logic and reason for a farcically overblown orgy of uninhibited sex, drugs and gaudy materialism, and the result is the most entertaining-for-all-the-unintended-reasons film of the new year. DMX—fulfilling his promise from last year’s forgettable Cradle 2 the Grave—finally does give it to ya.

Score: 
 Cast: DMX, David Arquette, Clifton Powell, Mike Ealy, Jennifer Sky, Reagon Gomez-Preston, Paige Hurd, Rhoda Jordan  Director: Ernest R. Dickerson  Screenwriter: James Gibson  Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures  Running Time: 88 min  Rating: R  Year: 2004  Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

Nick Schager

Nick Schager is the entertainment critic for The Daily Beast. His work has also appeared in Variety, Esquire, The Village Voice, and other publications.

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