The tone is set early on. In the opening credits in fact, which juxtapose real life images of dead black men and women, all shot and killed in the streets, standing out harshly and set against a sweet should track.
This is another Spike Lee film with undeniable energy. But this one wont give you wings.
Clockers are perhaps the lowest class in the drug dealing chain, the guys who man the ‘benches’ in the parks and back streets around the clock, waiting for the desperate, the lost, the impressionable and the straight up junkies seeking another fix, all while watching for the competitors and cops.
Strike (Mekhi Phifer) is one of these clockers, and he proves himself a capable small time criminal. But Strike doesn’t have the stomach for this life, both figuratively and literally, in that he carries aspirations beyond the benches, and he battles an illness that makes him nauseous and gives him painful stomach attacks.
Strike hangs with the same group of friends but nonetheless remains somewhat of a loner, never really clicking with any of them. I fact perhaps his best friend is a young boy who looks up to Strike, much to the chagrin of his protective single mother who understandably wants nothing bad to happen to her son.
Strike also has two contrasting father figures. Rodney (Delroy Lindo) sits atop the drug dealing pyramid and out of the reaches of authorities. Rodney takes Strike under his wing and promises to help him off the benches and onto bigger and brighter things. But just bodybag this one guy first to prove you really want out.
The second pseudo dad arrives later in the form of Rocco (Harvey Keitel), a wise but beaten down cop investigating the demise of Strike’s target. Rocco doesn’t want to believe that bustin’ caps and taking down low lives are part of Strike’s skillet. He is tired of dealing with the same events every day, with the only thing different being the face of the young black man in the middle who has either lost or thrown away his life. Rocco becomes more puzzled though when Strike’s hard working and decent older brother arrives to fess up to the crime.
With a plot could have proven a formulaic urban whodunit, Clockers is both blessed and cursed to have Spike Lee’s fingerprints all over it. The partially redeeming feature is that Spike didn’t write the film, as his quirks as a director are not nearly as clumsy as his quirks as a writer. Nonetheless we still get the character frozen in time as the action moves on around him and the weird camera angles and trickery, he even drags out the ‘bystanders all talking to the camera’.
But these compulsive inclusions all occur late, apparently once Spike was no longer able to resist the urges of making anything other than a ‘normal’ film. And they are not lazy or indulgent enough to dilute the power of the central story, nor the impact of the first rate cast, which aside from the central figures of Phifer, Keitel and Lindo, include Keith David as a beat cop who just wants to redeem one lost soul, and John Turturro as a less emotionally involved cop.
Clockers is hardly Lee’s best film, nor does it deserve to occupy the upper strata of the ‘urban drama’, but it is a solid film with good performances and a decent story, and far from Lee’s indulgent worst.
Final Rating – 7 / 10. If you can look past the Spike-isms, Clockers is a competent drama aided by a superior cast.