Lee, who directed from the screenplay he co-wrote with Richard Price, even put up a billboard for his camera to peek at from time to time. Planted squarely in the Brooklyn community where the action occurs, the sign commands, "NO MORE PACKING."
At the outset, 19-year-old drug dealer Strike Dunham (able newcomer Mekhi Phifer) not only is packing a handgun but has approached an intended victim, another "clocker" (so called because crack dealers work around the clock). A couple of scenes later, the victim lies dead.
Enter homicide detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), who after checking around concludes that Strike must have committed the murder. Rocco can't arrest Strike, however, because an unlikely perpetrator has confessed. It is Strike's strait-laced brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington), a guy with two kids, two jobs and a knack for doing the virtuous thing.
The story concerns Rocco's quest to free Victor by forcing a counter-confession from Strike. In the end we learn which brother committed the act, and why. The explanation is clumsy and unconvincing, but it doesn't ruin the movie. "Clockers" has too many other things going for it.
Extraordinary visual texture is one. The camera swings, whirls and swoops; a grainy flashback is dropped into a harshly overexposed indoor interrogation, which is sandwiched between two crystal-clear daytime scenes set in the housing-project courtyard where the clockers work.
As always, Lee fills his story with bold, vivid, glib characters who manage to be entertaining even as they flail at one another.
There's the enraged young mother (Regina Taylor) of a boy, Tyrone, who appears to have become a protege of Strike. She storms into the courtyard, heading straight for her quarry. "You ain't nothin' but a buncha good-for-nothin', death-dealin' scum!" she shouts, going nose to nose with Strike, her long braids flying. "You are selling your own people death! I can't let you do that!"
Her tirade continues for a full minute, and then, voom, she stalks off. Before the dust can settle, local beat cop Andre (Keith David) appears, all muscles and menace. Andre delivers much the same message the mother did: Leave Tyrone alone.
The parade continues. Crackheads slink in and out of the courtyard. Narcotics detectives roar up in an unmarked car, scramble out and round up the clockers for a punishing frisk. Local drug lord Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), Strike's mercurial boss, cruises by in his dark sedan, frowning as he takes in the scene. Then "homo-cide" detective Rocco and his partner (John Turturro) reappear to fire yet another round of questions at Strike.
Strike never wins our sympathy, though, for the truth is that he is selling death and does mean to bring young Tyrone into the business. "This is how you get it—hustling," he tells the boy at one point, referring to a room full of loot purchased with crack profits. Strike makes a puzzling protagonist.
His nemesis, Rocco, seems conscientious as he searches for the truth about the shooting. But he too evokes winces as he joins his fellow detectives in a repellent crime-scene ritual: They laugh and trade wisecracks while examining a bullet-riddled corpse in full view of a neighborhood crowd. Except for one meltdown scene, Keitel plays Rocco as an even-tempered professional—hardly the burnout Price describes in his novel "Clockers." (Both Strike and Rocco are drawn in far more elucidating detail in the novel than in the film.)
The movie has heroes, but they are all minor characters: Tyrone's gutsy mom, Andre and Victor.
"Clockers" is not for the squeamish. Lee opens it with a series of grotesque still shots that mimic actual crime-scene photos. Blood pools around fallen torsos, brain tissue spills from skulls, slash marks crease cheeks and throats. "We did this for full effect," Lee explained in production notes. "We wanted people to know, even before they settled into their seats, that we weren't dealing with cartoon shootings, because when you take a life, it's forever."
Definitely no cartoon, "Clockers" is a real, wicked thrill.
CLOCKERS (R) — Contains shootings, beatings and graphic photos of bloody corpses; much profanity.
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