Spike Lee takes up the cudgel against black-on-black violence in “Clockers,” a modern morality play that is gritty and pretentious in roughly equal measure. A study of the urban dope-dealing culture and its toll on everyone who comes in contact with it, the picture has an insider’s feel that is constantly undercut by the filmmaker’s impulse to editorialize. Sometimes brutal but more often sad and mournful, this remorselessly heavy drama likely faces a mixed critical and box office reception.
Universal original bought Richard Price’s lengthy, heavily researched novel for Martin Scorsese, but when he decided to proceed with “Casino” instead, Lee came aboard as director, with Scorsese taking a producer credit. Lee also rewrote Price’s script, shifting the emphasis away from the midlife crisis of one of the white cops and toward the early-life dilemma of a “clocker,” or small-time crack dealer. Whatever else can be said about the film, it is impossible to imagine Scorsese making anything remotely resembling it in terms of dramatic focus and point of view.
Lee shoves his concerns in the viewer’s face at the outset, with a credits sequence bulging with gruesome close-up stills of real-life (and all black) crime victims. Subtlety is clearly going to be of no concern here, although the introductory scene of 19-year-old Strike (Mekhi Phifer) and his crew bantering on benches in the Brooklyn projects, conducting business and being threatened by a bust, concisely conveys how different a language they speak, and how different a universe they inhabit, than do members of the more mainstream world.
As a favor to neighborhood drug kingpin Rodney (Delroy Lindo), a Fagin-like neighborhood figure who operates out of a candy store and instructs youngsters in the ways of the street, Strike agrees to kill a competitor. But we don’t actually see who pulls the trigger when the man eats lead, and shortly Strike’s hard-working, upstanding brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) turns himself in, to everyone’s surprise.
Intense veteran homicide cop Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), who works with less-obsessed partner Larry Mazilli (John Turturro), could easily call it a closed case, but he can’t buy Victor’s confession, much preferring to believe that the obvious criminal in the family, Strike, made the hit. Klein begins to hound Strike, cramping his crew’s style and even raising theirsuspicions about him. At the same time, Strike takes a lot of heat from some of his neighbors, including black cop Andre (Keith David), as well as from Rodney, who doesn’t want any small-timer endangering his smooth-running operation.
Didactically but effectively, Lee illustrates how the tough, independent, successful images of young men like Strike and his dealer buddies dominate the impoverished projects, inspiring young kids to dress, talk and behave like them and making men who try to do the right thing, by earning an honest living and living according to principles, look impossibly square, even stupid, to impressionable eyes.
As he did in “Crooklyn,” Lee presents the neighborhood’s women as possessing virtually the only voices of sanity within shouting distance, the only ones who can tell the men where to get off (although the cop Andre also speaks sense). Once again, this state of affairs is not analyzed, but it does suggest a fertile topic for deeper examination by Lee, or someone else, in another picture.
But more germane to the director’s interests here is the endless, and thus far unstemmable, cycle of violence perpetrated by blacks upon blacks. Some of the reasons for it are laid out here, as they have been in several of Lee’s previous films, and just so no one misses it, the cop’s wife lectures to Strike that “you are selling your own people death.”
Strike resolutely refuses to take responsibility for anything he does, but his own body is informing him of the error of his ways in the form of constant retching. As the vise closes ever tighter on him from both sides, the only plausible solution would appear to be escape, an option that presents itself in a far from convincing or compelling manner.
Lee is obviously uninterested in and ambivalent about the white cop characters, to the point where they come to seem more like symbolic figures representing the prevailing power structure that still lords it over the black community than men
with discernible layers to them. Keitel gets to be bullying and steamed-up in a shadow of his “Bad Lieutenant” characterization, while Turturro’s part has been reduced to nothing.
Lanky and shaven-headed, newcomer Phifer brings no psychological depth to the leading role of Strike, but catches the required outer trappings of shiftiness, opportunism, uncertainty and frustration quite well. Taking advantage of the film’s showiest part, Lindo oozes command and charisma as the corrupt Rodney, who can shift from charming to deadly on a dime, while Tom Byrd is truly scary as a deranged criminal who used to be somebody before drugs and disease ravaged him.
First-time cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed, an electrician on earlier Lee efforts, has conspired with the director to give the film a deliberately grainy, almost crude look; the early drug-deal scenes are covered with a pointedly nervous camera, many of the color schemes appear to have been made purposefully ugly, and Lee’s now-trademark use of the camera and a character moving in unison crops up in a climactic moment. The techniques call distinct attention to themselves, rather than just conveying the dramatic essentials of their scenes. Pic runs a bit long at more than two hours. With Lee hitting his points as hard as he does, one gets what he’s driving at in less time than that.