Running Out of Time

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

And then Strike's troubles really begin.
Enter Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), a hard-boiled homicide cop who has heard it all, seen it all and knows too much to be easily duped. When Victor walks in and confesses to the killing, everybody else, even Klein's partner (John Turturro, in a thankless and insubstantial role), considers the case closed. But Klein doesn't buy the confession. He doesn't accept the idea that someone as hard working and upstanding as Victor could be capable of cold-blooded murder. And while he may not be the most enlightened fellow in the world, Klein is by no means as casually racist as those fellow cops who think every black man is a potential criminal, that all of "those people" are routinely "killing each other." In Klein's view, Victor simply isn't a killer. But Strike? That's another matter altogether.

In many respects, Rocco Klein resembles several other characters Keitel has portrayed over the past two decades. (There are especially strong echoes of the cops he played in Bad Lieutenant, Thelma and Louise and Bad Timing.) But the specifics of the writing and Keitel's performance are what really matter here. A large part of Klein's motivations is ego, impure and simple. (He's frankly outraged that Victor and Strike would even begin to think that they could put anything over on him.) But there's another drive -- an obsession, really -- that pushes Klein. Close to retirement, he wants to do something good, to set things right. And he feels he has the power and perception to do so. Unfortunately, when it comes to gauging his own abilities to assume command and make a difference, Klein is every bit as misguided as Strike, Victor and Little.

One thing leads to another, with all the grim inevitability of classic tragedy. Klein harasses Strike. Little grows to doubt Strike's loyalty. Tyrone fears for the safety of his "hero." Victor adamantly sticks by his story. Hardly anything good comes from any of this. Only the faintest glimmer of hope is offered at the very end.

Much of Clockers is brazenly didactic, particularly when it comes to Lee's depiction of the various influences -- everything from neighborhood drug dealers to video games to TV ads for malt liquor -- that shape the attitudes of inner-city youths. And there are times when Lee's more flamboyantly stylistic flourishes (evocative variations of lighting and film stock, sudden shifts from realism to stylization) come perilously close to showoff-y. For the most part, though, style and substance complement each other to great effect, most notably in a brilliant sequence that has Klein leading a young killer through a confession that might actually save the suspect's life.

And even when the style is momentarily distracting, the strong performances -- among them Phifer's impressively nuanced portrayal of the profoundly confused Strike -- keep Clockers grounded in a hard-edged verisimilitude. There's a ferocious anger that burns just below the surface of even the quiet interludes of the film. Ultimately, however, Clockers leaves you with a sense of aching sadness, a regretful melancholy for the lives that have been blasted and the wrong decisions that have been made. Once again, Spike Lee has done the right thing.

Directed by Spike Lee. With Mekhi Phifer, Harvey Keitel, Delroy Lindo and Isaiah Washington.

Rated R.
132 minutes.

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