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.
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.