Spike Lee’s “Clockers” is a good film in search of greatness.
Its merits are obvious - it’s a strong, soul-searching drama that will jolt you out of the cocoon of summer entertainment with its opening series of close-up photographs of real-life crime victims.
But “good” is a case of might-have-been, and with “Clockers,” the might-have-beens are tantalizing. Originally, Martin Scorsese was to direct the film version of Richard Price’s best seller, which depicted inner-city life from the perspective of “clockers” who deal in drugs around the clock, often using a quasi-respectable shop as their base.
Scorsese instead chose to concentrate on the upcoming “Casino,” and the equally impassioned Lee became “Clockers”’ director, with Scorsese as producer. Lee rewrote Price’s adaptation of the novel, sharing screenwriting credit with him, and their collaboration is both a blessing and a burden.
Lee and Price have the same virtues, including an affinity for street dialogue and an awareness of the many layers of humanity. No one in their urban jungle is either complete beast or beastmaster. But Lee and Price also share a nagging flaw: They lack a cinematic sense of narrative drive.
Price, a superb novelist with an uneven screenwriting output (“The Color of Money,” “Kiss of Death”), never has displayed a feel for onscreen plot momentum. And Lee’s narrative drive vanished with his recent “Malcolm X” and “Crooklyn.” And large middle segments of the new movie just stand there - throughout its entirety, you’ll wish “Clockers” ticked a lot faster.
The film concentrates on the plight of Strike (played by newcomer Mekhi Phifer), a 19-year-old “clocker” who works the benches of Brooklyn’s housing project but reports to charming, ominous Rodney (Delroy Lindo), a drug kingpin who enlists a circle of young men as his cocaine runners. Rodney treats Strike like a favored son but asks a deadly favor: He must murder a rival.
But when the rival is slain, Strike’s noble older brother Victor (Isaiah Washington), a hard-working family man, confesses to the crime. Homicide detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) doesn’t believe him and craftily tries to elicit a confession from Strike.
Uneven as it is while you’re watching it, “Clockers” has an afterlife. Long after the film is - finally - over, you’ll still be wondering about the extent of its characters’ guilt and innocence, as well as the truth behind some grave situations. And Lee, skillfully merging his splashy camera techniques into the emotional flow, creates memorable scenes, including Rodney’s remembrance of his first killing and a youngster’s shocking slaying of an adult.
Phifer plays Strike with the right mixture of passivity and calculation, and Keitel, as always, is superb as the past-his-prime cop still capable of being shocked. But the talented John Turturro is wasted in the mild role of Keitel’s partner.
Lindo, who was achingly poignant as the well-meaning father in “Crooklyn,” is a magnificent Rodney. He loves his boys in his own way, and he can be charming. But he knows how to use his charm to lethal extremes, and a warm clasp on the shoulder can turn into a threatening stranglehold within seconds. His portrayal is all the more chilling for its moments of deceptive warmth.
Yet “Clockers” remains uneven and, most alarming, dramatically detached. Audiences may even want to distance themselves from these characters. But a great film would have brought even the most reluctant viewer into the arena.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Clockers” Location: Credits: Directed by Spike Lee, starring Mekhi Phifer, Harvey Keitel, Delroy Lindo, John Turturro, Keith David and Isaiah Washington Running time: 2:12 Rating: R
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