Hard-boiled meets hip-hop in entertaining feature from former cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. Shot in 18 days using mainly available light, gritty genre piece delivers jazzy, textured rendering of the ghetto pulp of late African-American author Donald Goines. Street saga should attract urban auds open to more literate spin on standard gangsta fare.

Hard-boiled meets hip-hop in “Never Die Alone,” one of the more entertaining features from former cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. Stylishly shot in only 18 days using mainly available light, this gritty genre piece about four men whose paths intertwine largely overcomes key cast weaknesses to deliver a jazzy, darkly textured rendering of the ghetto pulp of late African-American ex-con author Donald Goines. Produced by and starring rap artist-turned-thesp DMX (aka Earl Simmons), this Los Angeles street saga should attract urban auds open to a more literate spin on standard gangsta fare.

Scripted by James Gibson in classic noir style with extensive voiceover, the tale of crime, retribution and redemption starts with a corpse, which assumes chief narrator duties to recount his own rise and fall. The stiff is flashy drug dealer King David (DMX), who returns to his home turf after a long absence, determined to stop running.

First step is to pay his debt to crime kingpin Moon (Clifton Powell), who sends his young runner Mike (Michael Ealy) to collect, aware that he bears a longstanding grudge against the prodigal dealer. But it’s Mike’s hothead sidekick Blue (Antwon Tanner) who loses his cool and stabs King, also getting wounded himself. Mike drives to a car park to hide out, while Moon sends damage control in the form of two hit men. Mike escapes from them, leaving him with another bitter score to settle.

Meanwhile, King gets help from aspiring writer Paul (David Arquette), a white guy looking for inspiration in a tough neighborhood. He gets more than he bargained for when he serves as ambulance driver for the dying King, and a hospital nurse informs him the late gangster signed over his car, cash and assorted bling bling to the writer. Inside King’s car, Paul finds King’s taped autobiography.

Dickerson appears to forget one character or another from time to time. But the various strands are ably pulled together in Gibson’s screenplay.

The first production from DMX’s Bloodline Films banner, the thriller requires more of the producer-star than his previous roles in pics like “Cradle 2 the Grave.” But while he’s a little young for the part — despite minor aging makeup — and doesn’t quite have the acting authority to bring much modulation to the preacher-like voiceover duties and philosophical ramblings, DMX does have enough charisma and physical presence to outweigh his weaknesses. He never glosses over King’s ruthlessness to make him more sympathetic.

Arquette fails to convey the intellectual heft or flinty determination of a writer slumming it for a story idea, while Ealy has a real brooding soulfulness that makes Mike’s plotline arguably the most compelling. Henry Gibson cameos briefly as a funeral director.

Talented lenser Matthew Libatique (“Requiem for a Dream”) creates an arresting canvas of grainy nighttime street locations that adds significantly to the film’s rough-edged vitality and pulpy atmosphere. Music is mixed up to good effect, switching smoothly between hip-hop and softer soul tracks.

Never Die Alone

Production

A Fox Searchlight release of a Fox Searchlight Pictures, ContentFilm presentation of a Bloodline Films production in association with White Orchid Films. Produced by Alessandro Camon, Earl Simmons. Executive producers, Edward R. Pressman, John Schmidt, Angelo A. Ellerbee, Rudy "Kato" Rangel, Marc Gerald, Dion Fearon, Cameron Casey. Co-producers, Robi Reed, Cheryl Martin, Tashera Simmons. Co-executive producer, Elliot Lewis Rosenblatt. Directed by Ernest Dickerson. Screenplay, James Gibson, based on the novel by Donald Goines.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, widescreen), Matthew Libatique; editor, Stephen Lovejoy; music, George Duke, Damon "Grease" Blackmon; executive music supervisor, Angelo A. Ellerbee; music supervisor, Frankie Pine; production designer, Christiaan Wagener; costume designer, Marie France; sound (Dolby Digital), Felipe Borero; assistant director, Rodney Hooks; second unit director, Elliot Lewis Rosenblatt; casting, Robi Reed. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 20, 2004. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

King David - DMX Paul - David Arquette Mike - Michael Ealy Juanita - Reagan Gomez-Preston Moon - Clifton Powell Janet - Jennifer Sky Edna - Drew Sidora Blue - Antwon Tanner Rockie - Tommy "Tiny" Lister Nancy - Aisha Taylor

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