The idea of a gangsta movie told in the style of “Sunset Boulevard” seems strange, and in Ernest Dickerson’s “Never Die Alone,” it proves not just peculiar but quite awful. Based on a novel by Donald Goines, who was a gangster type himself, it’s the story of a New York drug dealer called King David (DMX), who narrates his flashy but tragic career from beyond the grave (supposedly via a bunch of pre-prepared audio tapes on which he’s recorded his memoirs). Happily, he bequeaths the tapes–along with his pimpmobile–to just the right person: an angst-ridden would-be reporter, Paul (David Arquette). The structure allows for the facts of David’s life to be doled out piecemeal while contemporary events–in particular, his death at the hands of Mike (Michael Ealy) and Moon (Antwon Tanner), enforcers for Moon (Clifton Powell), a drug lord from whom David once stole a bunch of cash. When Mike, who had a grudge of some unnamed sort against David, is marked for death by Moon to cover his tracks, a cat-and-mouse game follows as Mike targets Moon’s gang and they in turn aim to eliminate him. (They’ve already dispatched Blue.) Meanwhile Paul tries to uncover the truth about David’s past and Mike’s motives while avoiding Moon’s goons, who are also out to get him.

The convoluted structure and Dickerson’s gritty presentation (in tandem with cinematographer Matthew Libatique) are a combination which would be sufficiently grim on its own, but things get worse. The characters, or more properly caricatures, are a lost cause. King David is described by Paul at one point as having a kind of nobility, but nothing could be further from the truth: he’s an absolute scumbag who takes special pleasure in hooking his succession of women on heroin and then dumping them. And the dialogue he’s provided with by scripter James Gibson (presumably derived from Goines’s original) is the purplest of prose, filled with the most laughable hard-boiled cliches. DMX’s performance, moreover, is curiously flat; one would expect the rapper to exhibit at least a flash of charisma, but none shows up at all. As for Arquette, he suffers extravagantly from his supposed journalistic ideals, but nobody could make this sloppily-written character seem remotely real. The rest of the cast adds little to the mix. Powell is conventionally sleazy as the drug kingpin, and David’s stable of squeezes–mediocre TV actress Janet (Jennifer Sky), college brain Juanita (Reagan Gomez-Preston) and the hopped-up Edna (Drew Sidora), whom he’d knocked around before leaving New York for the West Coast and who proves key to unlocking the mystery of his murder–don’t register very strongly, either. Ealy has a smoldering presence as the intense Mike, but sometimes seems as inexpressive as Clarence Williams III.

“Never Die Alone” is so outlandishly bad that it actually incites a viewer’s morbid curiosity: you watch it wondering how much worse it can get. And there’s a kind of grim satisfaction when, at the close, the editor to whom Paul shows the story he’s based on David’s tapes declares it entirely incredible; at least one smart character has arrived on the scene. If only one could assume that its makers intended the movie to be funny, you could acclaim it as a successful (and rather subtle) take-off on the genre. But that doesn’t seem to be the case: the humor here appears entirely unintentional. As a result even DMX’s fans are likely to desert it in droves, and the picture may quickly expire in a fashion at odds with its title–with every seat in the theatre empty.