Based on a novel by pulp writer Donald Goines, Never Die Alone is a gritty, hard-edged urban thriller with a thin veneer of social responsibility. As a vehicle for rapper DMX (aka Earl Simmons), the film is a better vehicle for his producing than his acting. Although it's a cut above straight-to-video titles, audiences are still more likely to connect to Never Die Alone at home than in theatres.

After hiding out in Los Angeles, drug dealer King David (DMX) returns home to settle debts with gangster Moon (Clifton Powell). Moon sends underlings Mike (Michael Ealy) and Blue (Antwon Tanner) to get his money, but the meeting erupts into violence. Blue gets an ice pick in the eye. Mike then stabs King before fleeing into the night.

Journalist Paul Paskoff (David Arquette) finds the mortally wounded King and takes him to a hospital. When King dies, he leaves Paul his car. Settling scores as well as debts, King had been taping his autobiography. Paul finds the cassettes in a hollowed-out book and starts listening to them in his apartment.

King describes how he left the city with $15,000 worth of Moon's heroin. In Los Angeles, he quickly meets Janet (Jennifer Sky), a TV actress. Hooking her on heroin, he turns her into a pusher when she loses her job. King casually dumps Janet for Juanita (Reagan Gomez-Preston), a pretty coed. It isn't long before she's addicted as well.

The tapes draw the naive Paul deeper into King's world. Meanwhile, Moon's men hunt down Mike, intent on eliminating him. Mike's only hope is to kill Moon first. He finds an unexpected ally in Paul, who has learned the unsettling truth about his past from King's tapes.

DMX deserves credit for producing a demanding film with a harsh message, and for taking on an unsympathetic part in it. Still, his acting is too limited to fully capture the nuances of King's role. Although game, Arquette also seems out of place. The best work comes from actors like Powell and Tanner, who invest their parts with style as well as a real sense of menace.

Director Ernest Dickerson, a former cinematographer, pays careful attention to the film's look and feel, but has trouble conveying plotlines clearly. With three separate stories and a welter of flashbacks, the film can be hard to follow. King's florid voiceover, with lines like 'Your strength is your weakness,' doesn't help. Author Goines, who was murdered in 1974, clearly understood this milieu and the way people operated within it. It's too bad the filmmakers couldn't find a way to present that vision without resorting to some pretty threadbare clichs.

-Daniel Eagan