[Screen It]

(2004) (DMX, David Arquette) (R)

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Drama: A writer investigates the life and death of a notorious drug dealer who sought redemption in his last days.
King David (DMX) is a drug dealer who's suddenly decided he needs to seek redemption and make amends for his errant and criminal ways. Accordingly, he records his thoughts on audiotape while returning home and offering to settle his hefty debt with crime boss Moon (CLIFTON POWELL). The latter sends his two strong-arm thugs, Mike (MICHAEL EALY) and Blue (ANTWON TANNER), to collect the money. Things go awry, however, with both Blue and David being badly wounded outside a bar run by Jasper (LUENELL CAMPBELL).

Aspiring journalist Paul (DAVID ARQUETTE) hears the ruckus and transports David to the hospital where he dies, but not before bequeathing the writer with his tapes, money and car. When Moon gets word of what's occurred, he sends more henchmen to take care of both David and Mike. The latter attempts to stay clear of them, all while pursuing his own vendetta regarding how David treated a special woman in his life, Edna (KEESHA SHARP).

As Paul begins to go through David's belongings and tapes, we see various flashbacks to his relocation to California. There, he sets up his own drug business and becomes involved with various women, including TV actress Janet (JENNIFER SKY) and college student Juanita (REAGAN GOMEZ-PRESTON). Having decided that this tale will make a good story to sell to the local newspaper, Paul sets out to find what he can about David and his doings, all while being unaware of the danger awaiting him.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Spoof-based comedies have the potential of being both fun and funny. That's due to their nature of mocking or satirizing all of the conventions, clichés and caricatures found in one or more cinematic genres. It's also usually done with loving jabs and at least some respect for the source material.

The latter is certainly present in "Never Die Alone," a gritty urban drama that's so bad and over the top that it's unintentionally funny. Based on author Donald Goines' novel, the picture plays like a bad spoof that wasn't designed to be a comedy and comes off like a "highlight" film of the genre. There are the requisite gangsters, bad neighborhoods, drug dealers and addicts, sex, loose women, guns and enough profanity to make the Sopranos blush.

Yet, where that fabulous HBO series makes the characters and their lives and stories compelling and engaging -- despite not being exactly likable -- this effort fails at that quest. Of course, it's not exactly like screenwriter James Gibson (making his feature debut) or director Ernest Dickerson ("Bones," "Bulletproof") really tried.

Rather than creating original or at least interesting characters and plotlines, they trot out every tired cliché and convention known to man or at least viewers who like these sorts of offerings. There isn't anything here we haven't seen before, although the dialogue -- particularly the protagonist's voice over narration from, natch, beyond the grave (and on audiotape) -- is slightly fun just because it's so atrociously overwrought in its faux profundity.

If I didn't know better, I would have guessed that the filmmakers were purposefully trying to make it as bad as possible for comic effect. Alas, that does not appear to be the case, although it would have made for a better movie had they gone all of the way in that direction.

Most of horrendous dialogue comes from that narration that's been recorded on tape in a completely unbelievable if autobiographical, confession sort of fashion. Not only is it some of the worst writing you might hear all year, but it also sounds more like the output of a screenwriter trying to sound streetwise and profound rather than something credible or inherent to the characters.

For better or worse (I put my bets on the latter), that device allows for the dual plot framework that structures the film. On one side, we have the gangster's recordings spurring on a stranger and would-be journalist to investigate and write a story about the thug. Although to say so is really just splitting hairs, it's the film's least successful element. David Arquette ("Eight Legged Freaks," "3000 Miles to Graceland") does nothing to make his character interesting or sympathetic, resulting in a great deal of wasted time following his storyline.

It doesn't help that the way he obtained those tapes as well as the gangster's car and money is about as preposterous as one can imagine. Rather than have Paul find the tapes (the rest of the belongings are superfluous), the filmmakers have the mortally wounded gangster bequeathing his belongings to this stranger. I'm sure that happens everyday.

Anyway, as he listens to those tapes, we repeatedly flashback to the thug's criminal career track and new experiences on the west coast. It's a plot device and story you've seen countless time before, but it's not remotely interesting or intriguing as presented here.

As the Biblically named thug, rapper turned actor DMX ("Cradle 2 the Grave," "Exit Wounds") has an undeniable screen presence. Yet, he can't do much with the lame and clichéd character and script, even with the late in the game but predictable oedipal theme. Michael Ealy ("2 Fast 2 Furious," the "Barbershop" films) is decent playing the most interesting character (although only by default) that needs to be fleshed out more.

Clifton Powell ("Friday After Next," "Bones"), on the other hand, is just another caricature cliché from the genre playing the crime boss. Jennifer Sky ("My Little Eye," "Shallow Hal"), Reagan Gomez-Preston ("Love Don't Cost a Thing," "Jerry Maguire") and Keesha Sharp ("Malibu's Most Wanted," "Pootie Tang") inhabit the various female characters in the protagonist's life, but like everyone else, are abandoned by the script.

While cinematographer Matthew Libatique ("Gothika," "Requiem for a Dream") gives the film the appropriately gritty look, that alone can't compensate for every other bad element the film sports. And to top it off, when the film isn't retreading one cliché after another, it's just so gosh darn ugly and mean-spirited that one is left with no chance of finding anything to like or care about it. One can only hope that "Never Die Alone" doesn't follow its titular advice and instead quickly meets its demise with little or no audience. It rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed March 23, 2004 / Posted March 26, 2004

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