Stylish drug pusher King David has returned to Los Angeles to find redemption. In opening narration, he says, “In order to be truly redeemed, a man has to own up to his responsibilities.” He has dictated his life story onto a series of tapes, which wind up in the hands of a writer wannabe, Paul, who is determined to get King David’s confessional out to the public.
It’s a grim story. King David has ruined the lives of countless people by getting them addicted to his product (the film focuses on two women). He has murdered. He has lived an empty, hedonistic life. And upon his return to LA, he finds, not redemption, but ruin—in the form of a switchblade in the gut.
Director Ernest Dickerson makes no attempt to hide the fact that the lead character winds up dead; the movie opens with him laid out in an expensive coffin, whereupon he narrates the story from the grave. He says, ruefully, that if he’d known it would end this way, he’d have done things differently. No kidding. The movie tells the story of the last two days of his life and how he winds up in that gutter, bleeding to death.
There are a lot of biblical allusions in this movie. One character, a white man, rushes a dying black man to the hospital after other black men have denied him help. The man then tells the hospital workers that he’ll make sure any bills are paid, an act reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. There are a few visual allusions to heaven and hell, too.
I suspect that naming the lead character King David is meant as a hint at the biblical man who sinned and repented, but it should be noted that unlike the Old Testament "man after God's own heart," the movie’s King David seems more afraid of payback and bad karma. It certainly wasn't the cinematic David who confessed to God, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:3-4).
As narrator, King David says, “We reap what we sow” and “The Lord takes care of fools and babies.” A character gets in his car and in one move places a Bible on the passenger seat and a gun in the glove box. One man wears a large gold crucifix, while another wears a Star of David around his neck.
Three gratingly gratuitous sex scenes include rear male nudity, explicit motion and implications of oral stimulation. A crime kingpin has women hanging on him all the time, and in one scene he sits in a hot tub with two scantily clad women. One character horns in on women sunbathing in bikinis. A scene takes place in a brothel, where a prostitute dressed as a nurse leads a nearly naked man in playing “doctor.” Obscene references are made to genitalia. The f-word is used in a sexual context.
King David finds a woman appealing because she’s “uncorrupted”; on their first date, the woman’s mother accompanies them as a chaperone. Once he has the woman’s attention, though, he promptly sets about debasing her.
Frequent and intense. A minor drug dealer kicks a man on the floor until blood comes from his mouth, nose and ears. A man is stabbed with a switchblade; he in turn stabs his attacker with an ice pick. A gunfight in a parking garage shows blood splattering across windshields and spraying from victims. A woman's body is blown several feet through the air by a shotgun blast. (That scene is repeated several times in flashback.) The camera lingers on her bloody abdomen. A junkie is slapped and kicked, and when her son comes to her defense, the attacker smashes a bottle across his head. A bodyguard is kicked violently in the head. A man is shot while sitting in a hot tub. A drug dealer murders people by scraping the white, acidic corrosion off a car battery and giving it to them as if it was heroin. (A character dies after unknowingly injecting herself with it; her body shakes violently, and she foams at the mouth.) A man slaps his sister across the face. A drug dealer opens a secret door behind which he has an arsenal seemingly big enough to outfit an infantry platoon.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Well, it’s a movie about drug dealers. It includes at least five scenes of people snorting cocaine. Two scenes of a person preparing and then injecting heroin. And several scenes of people ordering mixed drinks or beer at bars. At a dinner, two characters drink champagne, but another refuses it, saying she doesn’t drink. Cigarettes and cigars make frequent appearances.
A woman finds cocaine in her boyfriend’s house. She looks shocked and disappointed at first, but then she asks if she can try some. There are two scenes of junkies suffering drug withdrawal symptoms.
Every onscreen adult male is corrupt to one degree or another. I think some of this corruption, hostility and hypersensitivity to every perceived insult or slight is a result of being raised in an environment with few male role models and in which fathers raising their children are the exception. The characters (and much of the gangsta culture) are the result of boys not being shown how to be men and, upon reaching adulthood, trying to prove their manhood the only way they know how: by bedding every woman they can, by defending their honor with violence, by open hostility to any perceived rival and, most of all, by looking out only for No. 1.
But it's the religious overtones that makes for more interesting conversation, even though there is some theological confusion in the attempt. After depriving King David of a decent burial by pocketing the money for his expensive internment, keeping the fancy coffin and placing his body in a cardboard box, the funeral director sends him into the crematorium. As flames consume the box, King David’s last words are, “I wonder what waits for me on the other side.” That is juxtaposed with another character who, having exacted his revenge upon David, drives through a tunnel toward the bright white light beyond it—an apparent allusion to heading for heaven. So I'm left to wonder, which one is redeemed? Does King David's death serve as atonement for his wicked life? Is his rival's retribution an act of righteous punishment? Or are they both simply doomed by their own doing?
African-American film director Spike Lee has said he is fed up with the entire gangsta and hip-hop culture, decrying its negative portrayal of blacks and the negative role models it shows. But Never Die Alone may not be exactly what he's hoping for. Even though Ernest Dickerson apparently wanted his movie to be an object lesson—a wages of sin story—it ends up becoming more of a study of the effects of several social pathologies. King David says, “Life caught up with me before I got a chance to turn the corner.” From what we see of the last two days of his life, however, I’m not sure what corner he’s talking about. Moreover, the “responsibilities” he should own up to are unclear. And despite declaring his wish to change, he still seems to enjoy his gangsta image and lifestyle.
The filmmakers get an A for intent but an F for execution.