Written by James Gibson, based on the book by Donald Goines
Directed by Ernest Dickerson
Starring DMX, David Arquette, and Michael Ealy
- Running audio commentary by DMX, screenwriter Gibson, and director Dickerson
- Deleted scenes with optional director’s commentary
- Making-of featurette
Released by: 20th Century Fox
My Advice: Worth a rental for fans of gritty gangsta tales or noir. All others pass.
[ad#longpost]”King” David (DMX) has returned to his original stomping grounds to make restitution to his former gang boss, Moon (Clifton Powell). After several years of living on the run, he wants to pay his debts and stop having to live life constantly looking over his shoulder. Unfortunately, a couple of his boss’ hot-headed thugs get sent to collect, and in a matter of minutes, a handful of lives have been turned totally upside down. David gets stabbed, and a reporter bystander named Paul (Arquette) rushes the badly injured gangster to the hospital. But it’s not fast enough. The “King” dies, but names the young reporter his beneficiary, suddenly thrusting Paul into the very dangerous world of drugs, backstabbing, and violence. Part of his “estate” left to Paul is a series of voice-recorder tapes wherein David has been chronicling his life story since the day he fled from Moon’s employ carrying a stolen brick of heroin.
The story of David’s incredibly violent past unfolds via flashbacks brought on by the tapes, while Paul must stay one step ahead of Moon’s thugs, who are afraid he’s a danger to them since he witnessed the stabbing. Meanwhile, in the story, David’s on the run because of the botched collection attempt, with Moon’s killers hot on his heels and blasting everything and everyone David ever cared about. It doesn’t take long to see that David likely had a knife to the chest coming, and by the time the story gets back around to the present and sorts itself out, you really can’t feel sorry for anybody wrapped up in this mess, except possibly Paul, though his romanticized notion of the “urban experience” is part of what got him into the mess in the first place.
The acting here is decent, but not fantastic. DMX does his best work in the bodiless voiceovers that help narrate the flashback sequences via the cassette tapes, but is otherwise pretty flat when he’s on camera. Arquette turns in a pretty decent performance, though I’m beginning to wonder if he could play anything except “out of his depth and desparately panicking.” He and Michael Ealy both spend the entire movie with a single expression frozen on their faces. Fortunately, the story isn’t exactly terribly subtle and nuanced, so their one-note performances are adequate to the task, if not terribly inspired. There’s also a small role for Tom ‘Tiny’ (‘Zeus’) Lister, one of my favorite character actors working the B-list.
The story here really is absolutely horrific in its thoroughgoing inhumanity. David thinks nothing of getting girlfriends hooked on heroin so that they’ll never be able to leave him. He also thinks little of slipping them a packet laced with battery acid when he needs to make them go away permanently. He breaks bottles across the faces of ten-year-old kids. On the flip side, Moon thinks nothing about killing (or having killed) anyone that might possibly know even a fraction of the truth about his operation, regardless of whether we’re talking adults, kids, teenagers, whatever. This is crime noir to its very core, which is refreshing when the vast majority of the “gangsta” films are ridiculous glorifications of the lifestyle as related in countless hip-hop tracks.
The commentary track is decent, with some actual useful tidbits sandwiched in between everybody talking about how great it was to work with everybody else. Scriptwriter Gibson talks in bits and pieces about the updating that had to go on from the original Goines novel, now two decades old. The making-of featurette is pretty generic stuff, so of only mild interest. I would have liked to see something about Goines himself, a hugely prolific author whose own battles with heroin addiction and a criminal past informed all his novels. We’re talking about a guy who is, according to some counts, the most successful African-American author of all time, and nobody’s out there to give a ten-minute talk about the novel, Goines, and his role as an inspiration to a lot of the gangsta lifestyle that feeds the aesthetic of this film? Come on guys. I don’t think I’m asking much…certainly not demanding Criterion treatment for this B-list title, but still. A little effort goes a long way. It’s not like Goines experts get a lot of calls for speaking engagements.