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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 13, 1995


Spike Lee
Harvey Keitel;
John Turturro;
Delroy Lindo;
Mekhi Phifer;
Isaiah Washington;
Regina Taylor;
Keith David
Under 17 restricted

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The dilemma of "Clockers," Spike Lee's punishing, confused adaptation of Richard Price's novel about the urban drug trade, is summed up early on, during an impromptu debate between Strike (Mekhi Phifer) and his crew. Some of the young "clockers"—drug runners—working the project park benches think that the only "real" rappers are the hard ones, that rap should be tough and in-your-face because "that's what it's like out here." Others argue that rappers should stop glorifying crime and drugs, and start putting out the "positive" word on constructive change.

The exchange is short but revealing, cutting immediately to a crucial question: How does a contemporary artist deal with the inner city? How, after so many crack movies and cop shows and gangsta videos, can Lee—or anyone else—take on this material without running into a cliche around every corner?

Lee doesn't come up with the answer in "Clockers." Still, to his credit, you can feel him grappling with it, searching for a solution.

The problem is one of saturation: Rap and its surrounding universe are a multimillion-dollar industry. That's a lot of imagery. Still, in his powerful opening sequence, Lee effectively constructs a traumatizing collage of death: close-up shots of bloody corpses, slit throats, entrance and exit wounds, dark pavement slick with brain tissue.

It's a devastating sequence—one of a generous sampling of extraordinary moments in this erratic, troublesome film. And perhaps nowhere else does Lee articulate such a strong, personal sense of feeling; nowhere else does the equation between crack and death come across more vividly. Unfortunately, once Lee begins telling Price's story, his focus becomes less acute.

The central story itself is not distinctive, and though Lee certainly churns up a lot of dust, he never captures the mythic quality that made Price's original seem so much bigger than its almost generic cast of players.

Strike and his crew run crack for Brooklyn operator Rodney (Delroy Lindo), who conducts his illicit business without much fanfare out of his neighborhood candy store. Strike is Rodney's man—or at least that's what Rodney keeps telling him. And if Strike would just deal with this one problem for Rodney, this one little hit on a kid working at a fast-food joint, then Rodney would hook him up.

Almost immediately, the kid is found dead. But it is Strike's brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington), who turns himself in for the crime. Because Victor is married, with two kids, and works two jobs, Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), the investigating detective, smells a rat. He knows that Strike is the bad apple. And instead of accepting Victor's explanation of self-defense, Rocco latches onto Strike, putting pressure on him to confess.

Eventually, Strike's boss gets upset over his increasingly frequent conversations with Rocco. Between a rock and a hard place, Strike feels the walls begin to close in—or at least that's the feeling we're supposed to get, especially since Strike is also afflicted with a bleeding ulcer. Still, despite Lee's usual stylistic tricks and visual hyperbole, huge hunks of "Clockers" are strangely unaffecting. You can feel the director behind these scenes, pumping them up, pitching them—in much the same way he pitches his products in his television commercials.

Nonetheless, the actors do a credible job. As Rocco, Keitel finds new wrinkles in this tired character, mainly by remaining oblivious to everything except what's right in front of his formidable nose. Phifer makes a confident debut as Strike, but Lindo makes a more prominent impression, even though his amoral Rodney compares unfavorably with others in the genre, most notably Morgan Freeman's character in "Streetwise."

There are potent observations about an important subject here, and what comes through most distinctly is the everyday quality of the lives on screen. The world of "Clockers" is not a world of chaos. It's extremely orderly, a place for business and businessmen. Death is a byproduct, but if you do the job right, that all takes place downstream.

Lee is grappling with real issues here, and the real world resonates through his work. The Mark Fuhrman tapes, for example, make Price and Lee—who have juiced up the dialogue to give it an even greater immediacy—look like geniuses. The film nails the sort of callused, practical-minded police force that casually accepts street violence: Let the "yos," as the cops call them, kill themselves off. Who cares?

What Lee doesn't give us is the full, hellish context of the system in which Rocco and his sidekick (John Turturro, in a small role) work. Price's book, it seems, is about the system, but Lee's "Clockers" lacks both the novel's expansiveness and its sense of psychological intimacy. What we get mostly in the film is a sense of Lee flailing, struggling to get a handle on his material.

Clockers is rated R.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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