A half-dozen case-hardened cops crack dark jokes over the corpse of a young black clocker (crack dealer). The bullet that killed him passed through the kid's T-shirt, which, ironically, bears the legend "I will kill you" under a line drawing of a gun.
"Someone musta read it backwards," deadpans one white cop.
"Somebody oughta blow this shit [the projects] to Timbuktu," assesses another.
"Why bother?" wonders a third. "They all kill each other anyhow. It's like a self-cleaning oven."
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Conversations such as that one pass for comic relief in Spike Lee's riveting new ghetto drama, Clockers. The film opens with a collage of grainy, grisly, gory closeups of young black homicide victims interspersed with shots of macho gang graffiti and blank-faced onlookers peering uncomprehendingly at the carnage over yellow police crime-scene tape. In the hands of a less accomplished director, this cinematic adaption of Richard Price's (screenwriter of The Color of Money, Sea of Love) novel could have turned into Grim and Grimmer. But Spike Lee is up to the challenge of stripping the author's 600-page opus down to its essentials, then embellishing Price's world-view with his own unique -- if controversial -- vision. The resulting film is part murder mystery, part antiviolence polemic, part socioeconomic document, and part human drama exceedingly well-told. Say what you will about Spike Lee -- he's a racist; he's a self-indulgent filmmaker; his movies send off contradictory messages -- when the man finds a story that suits him and he reins in his tendency to proselytize, the results can be striking. And Clockers suits Spike Lee very well indeed.
Strike (newcomer Mekhi Phifer making up for in charisma what he lacks in acting polish) runs a crack-dealing operation for local drug boss Rodney (Delroy Lindo, walking a fine line between menace and compassion). With Price's book and screenplay as blueprints, Lee digs into the nitty-gritty details of the clocking life -- the complicated logistics of a simple dope deal, the humiliating (and ineffectual) police busts, the shakedowns and payoffs, and the mixture of boredom and tension and sudden explosions of violence that parallel life in a war zone. The business and the general hardness of life for a young black man in the ghetto already have taken their toll on Lee's poised, stoic protagonist; Strike internalizes his anger and frustration and swigs a steady stream of Moo-Moos (Yoo-Hoo probably wouldn't let the production mention its drink by name) to soothe his rapidly developing stomach ulcers.
When somebody pumps four bullets into Darryl (Steve White), a fast-food restaurant manager and employee of Rodney who has been selling dope by the ounce along with burgers and fries, world-weary homicide detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel in yet another tightly wound gem of a performance) figures Strike for the shooter. Rocco remains convinced of Strike's guilt, despite the tearful confession of Strike's hard-working, cleaner-than-clean brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington). Rocco becomes obsessed with proving Strike's guilt, just as Rodney begins to question his protege's loyalty. Right and wrong, black and white, guilt and innocence -- the concepts become so twisted, entangled, and convoluted that by the end of the film nothing seems clear-cut any more, except Strike's determination to survive the bleakness of an urban nightmare that seems destined to worsen forever under a spiraling cycle of violence.
Clockers offers its share of surprises -- is that Spike Lee pointing a finger at gangsta culture and rap videos as a contributing factor to black-on-black bloodshed? -- but perhaps none greater than the fact that a pair of strong-willed storytellers as dissimilar as cynical white author Price and contrary black director Lee collaborated and ultimately succeeded in converting Price's novel (so long that it would have made something like a fourteen-hour movie if filmed as written) into a cohesive, entertaining, thought-provoking work of art that paints the streets as the battleground for one young man's soul. Make time for Clockers.