September 16, 1995
Web posted at: 12 a.m.
From Correspondent Carol Buckland
ATLANTA (CNN) -- "Clockers" seems like a cinematic rite-of-passage for the multi-talented (and sometime artistically misguided) Spike Lee. While he's been someone to reckon with since he burst onto the scene with "She's Gotta Have It," this is his most mature film to date.
Based on the bestselling (and truly terrific) book by Richard Price, "Clockers" tells the story of an entry-level crack dealer named Strike. He's barely 19 and almost burned out. Two clues to his remaining sparks of humanity: a bleeding ulcer (disease as metaphor) and an almost innocent fondness for trains.
In any case, Strike wants to get off the housing project benches where he's been running a penny-ante crew of dope- dealing teens. His boss and mentor, Rodney, tells him a step-up toward off-the-street success can be his. All Strike has to do is kill one of Rodney's competitors.
The guy ends up dead, without the audience knowing who did it. Strike's struggling, stressed-out and straight arrow brother steps forward and confesses to the crime, citing self-defense. A calloused and casually racist cop named Rocco Klein decides something stinks about the case and starts to squeeze...
Newcomer Mekhi Pfifer is effective as Strike. How much he's actually "acting" and how much he's simply being who he is is hard to gauge. It doesn't really matter here. He walks the walk, talks the talk, and holds his own against some real pros.
Delroy Lindo is stone cold brilliant as the crack kingpin, Rodney. A veteran performer, Lindo attracted major attention with his Tony Award-nominated performance in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" in 1988. He made an indelible impression (at least on me) as West Indian Archie in Spike Lee's "Malcolm X." He'll be coming soon to a theater near you in Barry Sonnenfeld's "Get Shorty," which co-stars Gene Hackman and that comeback kid, John Travolta.
Rodney could have been a cliche. As beautifully as the role is written, the character demands an actor who can dance an incredibly fine emotional line and turn on a dime. Lindo is more than up to the task. There is one scene in which he drops his generally affable mask and shows himself to be a soulless psychopath. He terrifies without raising his voice. But the scariest thing of all is the fact that his character is the closest thing to a father figure/role model Strike has ever known. (142K .aiff sound or 240K .wav sound)
Isiah Washington brings great complexity to the role of Vincent, Strike's older brother. Vincent's sweating hard -- working two jobs, taking all kinds of crap -- to get the wherewithal to move his family out of the projects. He's a man desperately trying to do the right thing. Washington exudes decency, intelligence and angst...plus a simmering rage.
Harvey Keitel delivers yet another memorable performance as Klein, a cop who's seen bad, done worse, yet occasionally (and almost against his better judgement) succumbs to a good instinct. In the past, Lee might have let this character turn into a cartoon. In "Clockers," he gives Keitel the room to turn him into a multi-faceted human being. Klein is a scuz in a great many ways. And his pursuit of the "truth" in the whodunnit upon which this movie turns is fueled as much by his pissed-off perception that he's being jerked around as it is by any moral sense of judgement. (189K .aiff sound or 240K .wav sound) But he's not a stock villain.
As has tended to be the situation in Spike Lee's films, women get pretty short shrift here -- certainly, there are no female characters approaching the complexity of Rocco Klein or Rodney. On the other hand, women are almost extraneous to the slice of life Lee has set himself to explore, so it would feel false for him to shoehorn in a woman for the sake of having a woman character.
The surviving strength of African-American women -- the redemptive potency of the black matriarchy -- is hinted at, though, and that adds to the richness of the film's mix.
Lee is a director with a whole bunch of tricks in his bag. One of his most annoying habits has been his inability to recognize that there are moments when less is more and that flashy-trashy film school cleverness can actually detract from a story rather than enhance it. In "Clockers," Lee shucks off a lot of his "look at me" techniques and plays it relatively straight. There's a gritty, documentary feel to many of the scenes. Yes, he's got a few in-your-face effects, does the 360 degree camera circle until the audience feels seasick more than once and indulges, yet again, it one of his goofy rear projection sequences. But all in all, he's got himself extremely well in hand.
Cinematographer Malik Sayeed (he's about 26 and worked on Spike Lee's "Crooklyn" and "Malcolm X") is a find. His work is lean, mean and remarkable. He uses different film stocks, lighting techniques, etc. and creates a variety of strong, can't-look-away visual images.
The soundtrack, to my taste, is overdone and obvious. There are moments I wanted just ambient sound -- no juiced-up music telling me what I was "supposed" to be feeling. Still, I expect that "Clockers" the tape/CD will sell extremely well.
Despite the fact that this film ends on a not-quite- convincing note of hope (there are really THREE endings) and showcases some moments of dark-hearted comedy, "Clockers" is as grim as it is good. This is not an"entertaining" popcorn- type movie. It's timely. It's tragic in many ways. And it leaves a provocative and lasting impression.
"Clockers" -- no surprise -- is rated R. The title sequence is a re-creation of police death scene photos of murdered young blacks. It's chilling and stomach-churning and may gross some people out. But it sets the agenda with horrific agenda. The language is profane in the extreme. There's a fair amount of violence, but not a lot of blood after the opening sequence. The true obscenity in this film is the brutalization of the soul it explores.
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