Spike Lee does John Singleton by way of Martin Scorsese.
That's a shorthand explanation of "Clockers" for movie fans familiar with the work of those directors. Lee directed (and co-wrote and co-produced), though this "Mean Streets" look at New York drug dealers definitely has a Scorsese sensibility (and by golly, there's Scorsese's name, listed as a a co-producer). And, of course, Lee's subject here has been covered many times in recent years by younger black filmmakers, beginning with Oscar nomineee Singleton's first film, "Boyz N the Hood."
On the other hand, Lee's signature gee-whiz camera work, overwhelming music and his own on-camera cameo identify "Clockers" as the work of an artist who long ago staked out his own territory, especially in terms of stylized direction.
Yet, for all its painstaking technical prowess, this is perhaps Lee's most emotionally empty film, as he takes a more low-key, aloof approach than usual.
Based on the best-selling novel by Richard Price (who co-wrote and co-produced), the "Clockers" of the title are bottom-rung drug dealers (so-called because they work around the clock), sitting on park benches in the Brooklyn projects, idolized by youngsters and vilified by parents.
The central character is a young clocker called "Strike" (newcomer Mekhi Phifer), who is being strong-armed into committing murder by his boss, the local drug kingpin Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo). Strike is, naturally, reluctant and seeks counsel in a local bar from his estranged brother Victor (Isaiah Washington), who is having emotional problems of his own.
After the killing occurs, it is unclear exactly who did what but Victor confesses to the crime and is locked up.
Homicide detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), however, is uncomfortable with the situation. He believes the wrong brother is in custody and begins pressuring Strike as he tries to uncover the truth.
The tenuous relationship that develops between Strike and Rocco is the crux of the film, and certainly its most successful element. And despite the constant profane language and gory violence, director Lee is obviously sincere in his desire to bring vividly to a broad audience the horrors of drug abuse and drug dealing, especially as he meticulously details Strike's life. In fact, he gives us so much detail about this particular character that others seem far too underdeveloped.
Lee also sets up his agenda immediately, displaying horrific police photographs of young victims of drug-related crimes under the opening credits. His intentions here are easily achieved but, despite the graphic violence portrayed throughout the film, those photographs are so horrifying that everything that follows seems muted.
There is some fine work on display here, however, and the central performance by Phifer is riveting. Keitel matches him, as does Lindo, who creates a very scary character. (John Turturro, on the other hand, has very little to do.)
Mercifully, the audacious Lee keeps his goofy stylistic technique a bit more in check than in some of his other films, but a little goes a long way and still tends to undermine the storytelling ability of his work.
"Clockers" is rated R for violence, gore, profanity, vulgarity, racial slurs and drug abuse.