The talent at work on this hot-button urban drama is top tier, with director Spike Lee, writer Richard Price and producer Martin Scorsese going full-tilt at bringing Price’s lauded 1992 novel, Clockers, to the screen. Lee shot the film in Brooklyn, N.Y., but the locale could be any inner city where low-level crack dealers man the benches outside the projects. These dealers, usually black males, are called clockers because they can be found on their stands at any hour, making deals, talking guns and gangsta rap, poisoning the lives of the community around them and serving as deadly role models for restless kids who see these losers as the essence of savvy cool for pulling down $1,500 a week.
Strike, played by newcomer Mekhi Phifer, is a clocker working for Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo in an unnerving portrait of malignant cunning), a drug boss who uses a grocery store as a front. Strike is 19 and Rodney’s protégé. Maybe that’s why Strike swills Yoo-Hoo to soothe his ulcer. Something is nagging at Strike. His brother Victor (Isaiah Washington), a hard-working family man, has confessed to a murder. Strike knows something he’s not telling. Homicide detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) wants to find out, which turns the movie into a blistering battle of wills.
Phifer, who has admitted to theft and dealing before he was discovered by Lee, gives an extraordinary performance alive with ferocity and feeling. And Keitel is superb as the cop who hounds Strike like a street version of Javert in Les Misérables until a grudging understanding is reached.
Lee and cinematographer Malik Sayeed fill the screen with startling images of urban life that have become the norm: kids with guns, AIDS-afflicted junkies, murals of the dead. There is no denying the film’s power — or its flaws. Lee, who co-wrote the script with Price and has a cameo role as an onlooker, preserves the brutality of the book but little of its dark humor. An exception: cops examining a bullet-ridden body with the grisly detachment of coroners who tuck in their ties before bending over a corpse. And why scrap the subplot about Rocco being followed by an actor who wants to play him onscreen? It’s Rocco’s glam pipe dream. Coherence is also a victim in the film version. Lee’s needlessly elliptical style will leave nonreaders of the novel wondering who’s who and what’s where. The blunt editing seems to have reduced John Turturro’s role to an occasional walk-on as Rocco’s partner, Larry Mazilli, a pivotal character in the book. As for the ending, the filmmakers may not have seen Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, but that’s no excuse for showing the actor drive yet another street kid off to a travel terminus and a chance at redemption. Still, the damage isn’t crushing. Clockers thunders home with the bruising urgency of a story that needs to be told.