The streets in "Never Die Alone" are slick with rain, sin, and the skid marks of film noir voice-over narration. They've also been filmed from every conceivable angle, including upside-down and sideways. The director, Ernest Dickerson, is the great cinematographer behind Spike Lee's best movies, and he's not about to let you forget it, even if he hired Matthew Libatique to shoot this film.
There's the temptation to label "Alone" a blaxploitation riff for the hip-hop generation and be done with it, but that's misstating the case. The movie, a flashy but ultimately routine saga of gangsta criminality and payback, is the first major release to be based on the work of Donald Goines, the pulp writer who burst out of prison in the early 1970s with a string of vivid, punchy, amoral crime novels. Published in 1974, "Never Die Alone" isn't a throwback to "Shaft" and "Superfly" and "Foxy Brown," it's part of the same cultural response.
Not to mention a lot meaner. "Donald Goines wrote fiction the way other people package meat," wrote the authors of 1998's overview "Cult Fiction," and the characters and dialogue in "Alone" preserve Goines's brute, functional street realism. Ladle in the requisite kowtowing toward Al Pacino in "Scarface," a fascination/repulsion with all things bling-bling, and a punishingly misogynistic view of women, and you've got a movie aimed straight at the hearts and minds of hip-hop's high end.
Sealing the deal is the casting of DMX as King David, the soulless bad boy who returns to New York's mean streets in the opening scenes and whose audiotaped "memoirs" provide the framework for much subsequent flashback to-and-fro-ing. This is the rapper's first solo starring role -- no Steven Seagal or Jet Li to clutter up the poster this time -- and he possesses the glowering indominability of a real screen tough guy. All he needs now is a real script.
This one, written by James Gibson, keeps the unusual multinarrator structure of the Goines novel while somehow making it seem old hat. King David returns to Harlem with a bag of ill-gotten loot; he wants payback and so does local kingpin Moon (Clifton Powell), who unleashes his strong-arm men on his prodigal employee. One of the goons is Michael (Michael Ealy, of the "Barbershop" comedies), a young man almost doubled over by an unspecified personal hatred of King David. Another is the hulking and always welcome "Tiny" Lister, who may in fact have been in every movie ever made and who is rather shockingly the classiest presence here.
Then there's Paul (David Arquette), the slumming white-boy writer who comes by King David's tapes and through whom we get the tawdry back story: David's relocation to Los Angeles with a stolen bag of heroin, his wooing and addicting of a TV actress (Jennifer Sky) and a sweet-faced college student (Reagan Gomez-Preston) -- both of whom, don't you know, are asking for it on some level -- and sundry other crimes.
How do we know Paul is a writer? Because he has a photo of Hemingway on the wall, and because he uses an old Remington typewriter, word processors apparently not permitted north of 125th Street. That's the level of sophistication on which Dickerson is working, sadly, and it keeps the movie from rising above mediocre pulp. The richest joke is that Arquette is playing a shallow ethnic stereotype -- and doing a poor job, at that -- but I'm not sure the filmmakers are aware of the irony.
"Never Die Alone" invites us to both hate King David and admire his style, and there will probably be some hand-wringing about that. Fine -- the more the assumptions behind gangsta glorification are picked apart in public, the better. But it's worth noting that the criminal antihero has had a long, cheerfully dishonorable career on the American pop scene. We need our devils: Jimmy Cagney's Public Enemy and Pacino's Scarface knew that, and so might DMX's King David if the film ever got out of his way.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.