Sucker Free City

Spike Lee returns to familiar issues of urban dope-dealing, gangland culture and interracial friction in "Sucker Free City." Despite a degree of sermonizing, this multicultural story of three young San Francisco men from different backgrounds has a dense texture, grittiness and authenticity that make it compelling drama.

Back on firmer ground after the regrettable comedy “She Hate Me,” Spike Lee returns to familiar issues of urban dope-dealing, gangland culture and interracial friction in “Sucker Free City.” Despite a degree of sermonizing that now seems inescapable with the director, this multicultural story of three young San Francisco men from different backgrounds has a dense texture, grittiness and authenticity that make it compelling drama. Showtime series pilot was not picked up, but it will be a strong cable event movie with theatrical potential wherever urban themes have traction.

Two-hour feature closes on an ambiguous note, as a key character played again by talented “She Hate Me” lead Anthony Mackie contemplates his standing within a local gang. While this clearly was conceived as a segue to further series development, “SFC” also feels entirely complete as a standalone.

Showing some thematic overlap with several of Lee’s films but perhaps closest in subject matter to “Clockers,” the project nonetheless offers a fresh dramatic take on the territory. It also represents an auspicious initial collaboration between the director and young writer Alex Tse. The two will again team on the latter’s first feature screenplay, “87 Fleer.” Tse also is scripting a remake for Warners and Joel Silver of blaxploitation classic “Superfly.”

“City’s” setting is established with a geography lesson on three specific San Francisco neighborhoods: Hunters Point, which became a slum area after the Navy’s shipyards were closed in 1974; the formerly low-rent Mission District, which has been steadily gentrified, forcing out the poor and minorities; and Chinatown, where tourism and restaurant trade co-exist with local mafia running protection rackets.

Nick Wade (Ben Crowley) is a 19-year-old white guy with a cultivated homeboy attitude. He is working to get a foothold in the business world via his low-level corporate job while sidelining in credit card fraud and dealing coke to his colleagues. No longer able to afford their Mission District rental, Nick is forced to move with his low-income parents (John Savage, Kathy Baker) and sister (Laura Allen) to Hunters Point. Their new home is on turf controlled by the V-Dub gang, whose hotheaded second-in-command Leon (Malieek Straughter) wastes no time making the white newcomers feel unwelcome.

Parallel to that strand, the drama tracks hungry young Chinese gang member Lincoln (Ken Leung), who skims money from local business-owners’ payments behind the back of his Triad boss (George Cheung). Lincoln also is conducting a secret affair with the mob leader’s daughter Angela (T.V. Carpio) despite her engagement to a young Chinese businessman. Without consulting his superiors, Lincoln kills a respected local restaurateur (James Hong) to cover his own illicit scam, putting his position in the gang in jeopardy.

Third principal character is Keith (Mackie), known as K-Luv, whose moral qualms about unnecessary violence represent a contrast with the more brutal attitude of his fellow V-Dubbers. Attempting to eliminate Chinatown bootleg copies of a local rapper’s CD, K-Luv sparks friction with Lincoln and his boys. He sees an unexplored entrepreneurial opportunity for the gang in pirated music and enlists Nick’s help in accessing computer technology.

Tse’s well-crafted script dexterously weaves together the three men’s paths as they seek to move up the social ladder, hinting at their similarities as well as their cultural differences. The contrasts between K-Luv, pragmatically ruthless gang chief Sleepy (Darris Love) and volatile Leon are sharply drawn and create tense dramatic sparks.

The drama, however, is less evenly calibrated and somewhat schematic in its pursuit of a weightier agenda about cultural identity, community conditioning and the tragedy of new generations inexorably drawn into a gangbanger culture. These issues are articulated somewhat didactically by K-Luv to a junior drug-runner and by Lincoln to his young brothers.

Also heavy-handed is the depiction of Savage’s father character as a well-intentioned but flaky liberal, whose insistence on p.c. tolerance toward their hostile neighbors proves no help in the family’s attempt to acclimate to the new environment.

Cast generally is solid, in particular Mackie, quietly conveying the complexity of a character whose peer group behavior sits uneasily on his conscience. Leung also is strong as steely, single-minded Lincoln, who gradually reveals a deeper perceptiveness beneath his often rash behavior.

Agilely shot in hi-def digital video by Cesar R. Charlone, the film’s visual field richly contrasts the drab colors of dirt-poor neighborhoods with the city’s yuppified districts and the bustle of Chinatown, heating up splashes of primary color in the frame to bold, oversaturated levels. Sharp use is made of Terence Blanchard’s moody score, which is less portentous and dramatically overpowering than some of his music for Lee.

Sucker Free City

  • Production: A Showtime presentation of a 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks production of a Spike Lee Joint. Produced by Preston Holmes. Executive producers, Spike Lee, Sam Kitt. Co-producer, Ann Kindberg. Co-executive producer, Alex Tse. Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay, Alex Tse.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD video), Cesar R. Charlone; editor, Barry Alexander Brown; music, Terence Blanchard; production designer, Kitty Doris-Bates; costume designer, Donna Berwick; sound (Dolby Digital), Walter Anderson; assistant director, Mike Ellis; casting, Kim Coleman. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Masters), Sept. 14, 2004. Running time: 116 MIN.
  • With: Nick Wade - Ben Crowley Lincoln Ma - Ken Leung K-Luv - Anthony Mackie Sleepy - Darris Love Samantha Wade - Laura Allen Angela Tsing - T.V. Carpio Leon - Malieek Straughter Anderson Wade - John Savage Cleo Wade - Kathy Baker Mr. Tsing - George Cheung Kwok - James Hong