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Spike Lee's in-your-face moviemaking style--the pounding insistence that we get it--is familiar by now. So there's little surprise when Clockers, which explores the complex, uneasy relationship between cops and bottom-rung drug dealers around a decaying Brooklyn housing project, opens with a grim montage of bloody police crime-scene photos interspersed with shots of street murals commemorating young men who have died violently.

Here's Lee in his tough moral mode again, we're tempted to think. Here's Lee about to paint some murals of his own around the neighborhood.

But his work has grown less cartoonish since Sal the white pizza man and Mookie the black avenger faced off in Do the Right Thing or the interracial lovers of Jungle Fever descended into stereotype. In Clockers, Lee's characters--black and white--are fully drawn in act and attitude, and his tangles of plot and subplot now seem to advance something more important than his own ego: Spike Lee is coming into his own.

He's had help. The rich biographical source material underlying Malcolm X strengthened that film immeasurably, and here he benefits from a collaboration with the accomplished New York crime novelist Richard Price. Lee's work is still full of hard urban sting (in a way his nostalgic family idyll Crooklyn was not), but his worldview seems much less like an open-and-shut case these days.

The principals in Clockers (street slang for nickel-dime dealers, because they work around the clock) are a pair of neighborhood brothers, Victor and Strike Dunham (Isaiah Washington and the amazing newcomer Mekhi Phifer), who've taken divergent roads, one high, one low, and a tough white homicide detective with the unlikely, multiethnic handle of Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel). When the drug-dealing night manager of a fast-food place is shot to death, the scant evidence leads Rocco and his cynical partner Mazilli (John Turturro) to the "good" Dunham brother, Victor. Who cares if he's the shooter? Mazilli argues. This is just another killing, another bloodstain on the sidewalk. Besides, Rocco and Mazilli have seen it all: To distance themselves emotionally, they even mock the bullet-riddled bodies that lie at the heart of their workaday murder mysteries.

But Lee and Price want to dig deeper--into the racial polarities of the inner city, into the shady but useful moral bargains struck between strict law and actual justice in the era of crack cocaine and wholesale self-destruction. Clockers is another outcry against drugs, guns and violence, sure, and the provocative influences of hip-hop and gangsta rap. But it also manages to get at the algebra of violence in a way the slick, preening, so-called New Jack movies don't.

The strutting bravado of streetwise young Strike as he sells drugs from a park bench is offset by his obvious intelligence, his boyish fascination with trains (the way out?) and the unnamed poison that is literally eating away at him: He's continually coughing up blood, as if from ill-defined revulsion. Meanwhile, Rocco is hard-shelled and casually racist--he sprinkles epithets into his speech, even around black colleagues. But he is not quite the Mark Fuhrman of the East Coast: Beneath his sly wariness, his obsessive drive and his huge ego, he is, we come to learn, not the Bad Lieutenant at all. Rocco understands not only the cruel realities of the street but the few ways, tainted or not, he has of saving a life here and there. He's the most interesting movie cop in many a moon.

Close by in Strike and Rocco's orbit we find a ruthless yet disarmingly ordinary drug kingpin called Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), who conducts his battle for the neighborhood kids' souls from his cozy corner grocery store; a mother (Regina Taylor) who's fighting fiercely to keep her pivotal twelve-year-old son Tyrone (Pee Wee Love) out of the next cycle of death, and a committed black housing cop called Andre the Giant (Keith David), who enforces his own sensible law in the projects.

These vivid characters propel Clockers toward tragedy and redemption more effectively than Price and Lee's sometimes creaky plot devices, but it is the sheer atmosphere of the movie--tense, streetwise, hip and righteous--that really carries the day. By the time we learn the truth about the Dunham brothers and what drives them, we also feel that Spike Lee, Richard Price and this superb group of actors have gotten to the soul of the matter in the heart of the city. For my money, Clockers is Spike Lee's most mature and compelling film to date--and essential viewing.

 
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