At least in "Clockers," you always know what time it is: It's midnight in the American City and the American spirit.
"Clockers," derived from Richard Price's novel via a script by Price and director Spike Lee, is a two-hour reality check that begins with the phoniest trick in the book. It's about the cop who doesn't believe a confessed killer, the starting point for a thousand undistinguished novels and movies.
The cop who doesn't buy it, in this case, is one Rocco Klein (the great Harvey Keitel), a much-traveled Brooklyn homicide detective with the eyes of a man who regards a body as a piece of furniture with a hole in it. But this one time, Rocco wants more, and though everyone in the department tells him to cool it, he pushes onward, following a hunch, playing out the investigation, interviewing suspects over and over. Clearly, he's searching not merely for truth, but also for salvation: He needs to save one little crummy piece of humanity from the tide of savagery, ignorance and stupidity that is rising like a flood. That will be his one victory.
But from that start, "Clockers" goes nowhere you've ever been before, both in the narrow context of the genre and in the wider context of the society. It's built on the principle of the reversal. Just when you think you've got it figured out, it changes on you. In its boldest such reversal, it dares take the most reviled of all American characters -- the young black dope hustler (or, in the jargon, "clocker") -- and portray him as complex, conflicted, smart and, above all, human.
If you saw Strike lounging insolently on the benches outside the Nelson Mandela Housing Projects in Brooklyn, you'd think you knew all about him. Young, lazy, dangerous, brave, selling his toxins to all takers, white and black, sucking the life out of the community and the city so that he can afford a $150 pair of Reeboks. And when homicide cop Klein looks, that's exactly what he sees and that's the one he wants to put into prison.
But the mystery of Strike is the mystery of the American inner city. In truth, despite your assumptions, you know nothing about him, and to deny him his humanity is not merely a sin, it's a stupidity, for it means you misread the situation catastrophically.
Problem: Strike's brother, the kind of African-American that all white people axiomatically love (he's married, lives at home, father to his kids, works two jobs) insists on confessing to the murder of an out-of-control dope dealer. That death suspiciously helps Strike's main supplier, a store owner named Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo) who was trying to retain franchise exclusivity.
So Rocco digs, and the investigation into the life of Strike forms the spine of the story as we learn more and more about him and his world. So in one sense, it's a work of urban anthropology, going inside a culture that's almost always viewed from the outside.
Strike (played powerfully by newcomer Mekhi Phifer) is, for example, a constant surprise. Although he sells crack for a living, he is not yet ready to put aside boyish things and speak as a man. With his money (lots of it) he has rented a secret room, which he's filled not with machine guns or hookers or drug paraphernalia, but electric trains. That's Strike: A man on the streets, a boy in his room. You want to hate him; you should hate him; life is much easier if you hate him. Yet there he is, any adolescent awash with raging hormones and romantic yearnings and dreams as large as the Ritz. He's a kid. He's a dope dealer, but he's a kid.
One understands that Rocco doesn't really register him. What this movie is about more than anything is blindness: how people look at each other and see cliches. Rocco sees Dope Dealer. Strike sees Cop. And on and on it goes, a powerful depressant of the theme of how we'll never love one another because we never see one another.
The titanic force in Strike's life is Rodney, played with Lear-like intensity by the raging Delroy Lindo. He's a man who represents himself as Strike's "mentor" and yet one who wants to bind Strike to him forever by forcing him to kill. Rodney is the actual target of Rocco's investigation, but to Strike it feels like being the tennis ball in the recent Sampras-Agassi tiff, being whacked blindingly across the net by the larger players.
Lee is nothing if not game. Alone among major directors, he still goes for it like a film school senior hoping to impress somebody somewhere. In this film, the colors are over-saturated, pumped up, almost surrealistic. Outside of Chinese films, you've never seen reds so deep, blacks so black. It gives that most sealed-off of worlds a vibrancy and an immediacy that assaults the eye and lingers in the imagination.
What is wrong with this picture? More than a few things, alas. What is John Turturro doing here? The brilliant actor is largely a wash as Rocco Klein's partner who is striking in his symbolic presence as representative of police orthodoxy, but never really has a role in the drama or a character to play. What is Keith David, another powerhouse actor, doing here as a policeman who lives in the projects but whose relationship and motivations are never very clear?
And, for a movie about an investigation, it is surprisingly slow-moving: It doesn't build. A kind of "Crime and Punishment Downtown" it gets Dostoyevski's sense of detail and atmosphere and character, but it never picks up much speed and builds a crushing and undeniable momentum.
Still, "Clockers" takes you where you don't want to go and makes you glad you went.
Starring Harvey Keitel, John Turturro and Mekhi Phifer
Directed by Spike Lee
Released by Universal
Rated R (profanity, violence)