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Running Out of Time

With Clockers, Spike Lee givesa touching, and harrowing, view of inner-city life

You're still getting settled in your seat, balancing the popcorn on your lap, when Clockers first backhands you across the face. The opening credits glide past a series of shockingly realistic, horribly graphic still photos of police crime scenes. This, director Spike Lee wants us to know, is death on the mean streets in all of its bloody, sudden, totally undignified and insanely arbitrary finality. The corpses -- all impersonated, you may be glad to know, by actors who still are very much alive -- look like rag dolls tossed aside by some impulsively petulant child. Or a terribly capricious god.

Right from the start, it's obvious that Lee wants to put the sting back into on-screen death, to set Clockers far, far apart from the conventional melodramas about inner-city life and death. Not so obviously, Lee is also making a point that will reverberate throughout the whole of his powerful and provocative film, a point repeatedly underscored by the actions of his central characters.

These four men -- a cop, a drug lord and two brothers whose lives have taken dramatically divergent paths -- start out firmly believing they're masters of their fate. In the course of Clockers, each man must face the full extent of his self-delusion. How they come by this hard won knowledge, and how they respond to it, is what gives the movie the stunning impact of a modern-day morality play.

Clockers is an artful and intelligent compression of the lengthy, well-regarded bestseller by Richard Price, a novelist (The Wanderers) and screenwriter (Sea of Love, The Color of Money) justly acclaimed for his vivid characters and crackling dialogue. Price wrote a screenplay adaptation of his novel for Martin Scorsese, who was originally set to direct Clockers before he decided instead to do the forthcoming Casino. Scorsese still remained attached to the project as producer, but turned the directoral duties over to Lee, who made some major adjustments to Price's material while shaping it to his own tastes. The finished film reflects the influences of all three creative talents. Ultimately, though, this is very much "a Spike Lee joint." And it ranks along with Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing as the director's very best work.

The action has been transferred from the fictional New Jersey city of Price's novel to the Gowanus Houses project in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. But even though the location is different, and many of the novel's secondary characters have been deleted or drastically reduced in importance, the movie remains faithful to Price's original story.

Strike (newcomer Mekhi Phifer) spends his days perched on a strategically positioned park bench in the heart of the housing project. He works as a low level drug dealer, or "clocker," commanding a small crew of other clockers who sell vials of crack cocaine. Strike prides himself on the success of his operation, and on his ability to deal drugs without ever being tempted to use them himself. To many of the impressionable youngsters in a neighborhood pathetically short of adult male role models, Strike is a hero. To the mothers of those children -- particularly the mother of Tyrone (Pee Wee Love), a boy with dangerously romanticized ideas about what constitutes true manhood -- Strike is a pariah who "sells death to [his] own people."

Truth to tell, Strike really doesn't think much of his job, either. The pressure is literally eating away at him, giving him a painful ulcer. He yearns for a promotion and, ultimately, a way out of his dead-end life. But the only way Strike can get off the bench is to move up to a slightly more prestigious dealing job. And to do that, he must remain in the good graces of Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), a neighborhood store owner who employs and nurtures young dealers like some inner-city Fagin.

Little sounds so convincing, so comforting, as he repeatedly expresses paternal warmth for Strike that you almost get the feeling that he actually believes his own words. And maybe he does. Lindo, so memorable as West Indian Archie in Lee's Malcolm X, makes Little utterly beguiling in his honey-coated duplicity. He behaves very much like the upstanding small businessman that he claims to be, dutifully dusting the shelves and video games in his small but well-tended store. (You wouldn't be surprised to learn he's vice-president of the local Neighborhood Development Association.) And when he gently but firmly advises his new young recruits to save money for rainy days ahead, he has the avuncular tone of a man who feels genuinely responsible for the lives he's shaping. Every so often, though, the mask slips just a bit, and the monster inside can be seen. But only by those who are willing to look.

Little remains smoothly reasonable and persuasive even as he explains to Strike that one of his double dealing underlings has "got to be got." Strike knows what that means. And he also knows that, for all his bravado, he may not be able to pull the trigger.

By chance, Strike runs into his older brother -- Victor (Isaiah Washington), a respectable family man who works two honest jobs -- in a neighborhood bar. Their conversation takes a fateful turn when Strike begins to talk about his intended victim as a vicious thug worthy of extermination. (Of course, the potential victim isn't worse than Strike himself, but Strike would prefer not to think about that.) Much to Strike's amazement, his upright older brother promises to contact an unnamed hit man who might do the dirty work. And much to Strike's relief, just a few hours later Little's double-crossing employee is shot dead.

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