(Spike Lee, USA, 1995) 128 minutes


Director: Spike Lee
Producers: Jon Kilik, Spike Lee,
  Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Spike Lee, based
  on a book by Richard Price
Cinematography: Malik Hassan Sayeed
Editor: Sam Pollard
Music: Terence Blanchard
Harvey Keitel (Rocco Klein)
John Turturro (Larry Mazilli)
Delroy Lindo (Rodney)
Mekhi Phifer (Strike)
Isaiah Washington (Victor)
Keith David (Andre the Giant)
Pee Wee Love (Tyrone)
Regina Taylor (Iris Jeeter)

Reviews and notes

1995 Venice

The first half of the ’90s saw a proliferation of dramas about inner-city crime, but Spike Lee took his time before jumping into that fray with Clockers, a Richard Price adaptation that debuted to some acclaim and little box office in 1995. True to Lee’s ongoing portrait of Brooklyn, the movie seems more interested in the neighborhood it portrays than the specifics of the drug trade… Lee isn’t in entertainer mode, but despite its mournfulness, the movie is gripping and impeccably made. This was his first of three films with cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed, and together the filmmakers crank up the colors in many scenes to a high-contrast hyperrealism that makes the greens of the local park especially verdant – and the whites of interrogation-room lights especially glaring… If the inner-city crime genre of the ’90s has mostly dried up, there’s plenty about Clockers that still resonates.
- Jesse Hassenger, The AV Club.

Spike Lee's Clockers takes a mighty swipe at the culture of gun-packing crack dealers who waste lives, demoralize neighborhoods and keep police officers busy, busy, busy. In a movie well stocked with ambiguities, there is nothing fuzzy about the central message: Enough already. Lee, who directed from the screenplay he co-wrote with Richard Price, even put up a billboard for his camera to peek at from time to time. Planted squarely in the Brooklyn community where the action occurs, the sign commands, "NO MORE PACKING."

At the outset, 19-year-old drug dealer Strike Dunham (able newcomer Mekhi Phifer) not only is packing a handgun but has approached an intended victim, another "clocker" (so called because crack dealers work around the clock). A couple of scenes later, the victim lies dead. Enter homicide detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), who after checking around concludes that Strike must have committed the murder. Rocco can't arrest Strike, however, because an unlikely perpetrator has confessed. It is Strike's strait-laced brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington), a guy with two kids, two jobs and a knack for doing the virtuous thing.

The story concerns Rocco's quest to free Victor by forcing a counter-confession from Strike. In the end we learn which brother committed the act, and why. The explanation is clumsy and unconvincing, but it doesn't ruin the movie. Clockers has too many other things going for it.

Extraordinary visual texture is one. The camera swings, whirls and swoops; a grainy flashback is dropped into a harshly overexposed indoor interrogation, which is sandwiched between two crystal-clear daytime scenes set in the housing-project courtyard where the clockers work.

As always, Lee fills his story with bold, vivid, glib characters who manage to be entertaining even as they flail at one another.

There's the enraged young mother (Regina Taylor) of a boy, Tyrone, who appears to have become a protege of Strike. She storms into the courtyard, heading straight for her quarry. "You ain't nothin' but a buncha good-for-nothin', death-dealin' scum!" she shouts, going nose to nose with Strike, her long braids flying. "You are selling your own people death! I can't let you do that!" Her tirade continues for a full minute, and then, voom, she stalks off. Before the dust can settle, local beat cop Andre (Keith David) appears, all muscles and menace. Andre delivers much the same message the mother did: Leave Tyrone alone.

The parade continues. Crackheads slink in and out of the courtyard. Narcotics detectives roar up in an unmarked car, scramble out and round up the clockers for a punishing frisk. Local drug lord Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), Strike's mercurial boss, cruises by in his dark sedan, frowning as he takes in the scene. Then "homo-cide" detective Rocco and his partner (John Turturro) reappear to fire yet another round of questions at Strike.

Strike never wins our sympathy, though, for the truth is that he is selling death and does mean to bring young Tyrone into the business. "This is how you get it — hustling," he tells the boy at one point, referring to a room full of loot purchased with crack profits. Strike makes a puzzling protagonist.

His nemesis, Rocco, seems conscientious as he searches for the truth about the shooting. But he too evokes winces as he joins his fellow detectives in a repellent crime-scene ritual: They laugh and trade wisecracks while examining a bullet-riddled corpse in full view of a neighborhood crowd. Except for one meltdown scene, Keitel plays Rocco as an even-tempered professional — hardly the burnout Price describes in his novel Clockers. (Both Strike and Rocco are drawn in far more elucidating detail in the novel than in the film.)

The movie has heroes, but they are all minor characters: Tyrone's gutsy mom, Andre and Victor.

Clockers is not for the squeamish. Lee opens it with a series of grotesque still shots that mimic actual crime-scene photos. Blood pools around fallen torsos, brain tissue spills from skulls, slash marks crease cheeks and throats. "We did this for full effect," Lee explained in production notes. "We wanted people to know, even before they settled into their seats, that we weren't dealing with cartoon shootings, because when you take a life, it's forever."

Definitely no cartoon, Clockers is a real, wicked thrill.
- Kevin McManus, Washington Post, 15 September 1995.

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