Spike Lee's Urban Playground Feels a Lot Grittier in 'Clockers'

Criticized for sidestepping inner-city realities, he gets tougher

'Clockers'' marks an important step in the career of Spike Lee, easily the most gifted and controversial African-American filmmaker of his generation.

Based on Richard Price's streetwise novel, the film plunges into the violent world of urban drug dealers, a rigidly defined hierarchy with high-powered suppliers at the top and no-power dealers at the bottom. The main character is Strike, a hard-working teenager whose energetic mind and almost puritanical habits would probably bring middle-class success if he lived in a more civilized environment.

Instead, Strike is a clocker, forever racing against an imaginary two-minute clock as he peddles cocaine to inner-city addicts and suburban thrill-seekers while dodging jaded cops, turf-conscious rivals, and assorted psychopaths who happen to live in the neighborhood.

Similar terrain has been explored in earlier pictures by black filmmakers, such as John Singleton's thoughtful ''Boyz N the Hood'' and Mario Van Peebles's flashy ''New Jack City,'' two of the most widely seen examples. Most of Lee's movies are also steeped in African-American city life, but he has generally steered away from hands-on contact with the awful realities that surge through ''Clockers'' from beginning to end.

This one-step-removed stance was appropriate for movies like ''She's Gotta Have It,'' a spunky romantic comedy, and ''School Daze,'' about racial tensions on an all-black college campus. But it got Lee in trouble when he made ''Do the Right Thing,'' a brilliant study of black-white relations in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. Many critics rightly applauded this film's stylized approach to issues that might have stirred more emotion than thought if treated more bluntly. But others blasted it for glossing over the everyday challenges of inner-city poverty. One reviewer accused it of making a strife-loaded ghetto look like Sesame Street.

Lee responded to these criticisms through some of his later films - particularly ''Jungle Fever,'' a story of black-white romance that also showed a middle-class black man's gradual realization that he can neither avoid nor deny the drug-spawned horrors that have invaded his neighborhood and even his family.

Not until now, however, has Lee made such material the direct focus of a whole movie. ''Clockers'' demonstrates that he's far from blind to the bitter realities of underclass poverty, violence, and despair. Ironically, it also shows that his artistic sensibilities have become so deeply ingrained that he views even the most wrenching subjects in aesthetic as well as dramatic terms, using a cinematic style that calls as much attention to itself as to the real-world conditions he wants to probe.

This doesn't mean ''Clockers'' is as profoundly style-conscious as ''Do the Right Thing,'' with its boldly expressive colors and camera movements, or ''Crooklyn,'' with its audacious use of an image-distorting lens to capture the inner discomfort of a little girl's life.

There's still plenty of unvarnished naturalism in the stark depiction of settings that seem equally infernal for all who inhabit them: hapless dope peddlers like Strike, overlords like his boss Rodney, overburdened family people like his brother Victor, and even the hard-driven cops who live outside the ghetto but become inextricably tangled in its web of death and destruction.

Despite the immediacy of his subject, however, Lee conveys the story by visual means that are both unorthodox and conspicuous. His colors swing between metallic harshness and eye-dazzling luxuriance. His lenses bring symbolic symmetry to scenes that might have seemed chaotic or confused. Some episodes swing into pure delirium, using deliberately contorted images to conjure up might-have-been possibilities for the characters.

''Clockers'' is admirable in its ambition and at times brilliant in its execution, reconfirming Lee as one of the all-too-few current filmmakers who seek not merely to represent but to reinterpret our contemporary world according to insights his experience has taught him.

Still, he could have found a more appropriate starting point than Price's novel, a deftly written but basically conventional treatment of raw urban material via raw urban prose.

Condensing the book's 600-odd pages into about two hours of screen time, Lee omits important subplots that don't just supplement but enrich and explain the narrative's main concerns. He also disrupts the story's flow, and transforms slow-building revelations into abrupt surprises or arbitrary twists.

''Clockers'' remains a major work by a major film artist, but its cinematic achievements are diminished by its narrative and psychological shortcomings. Its performances are also uneven, although the key roles are capably handled - most notably by Delroy Lindo as Rodney, the psychopathic drug supplier, and Harvey Keitel as Rocco, the conscientious homicide detective. Isaiah Washington, newcomer Mekhi Phifer, and frequent Lee collaborator John Turturro round out the cast.

Price and Lee cowrote the erratic screenplay. Sam Pollard did the energetic editing, and first-time cinematographer Malik Sayeed deserves enthusiastic applause for the stunning camera work.

* ''Clockers'' has an R rating. It contains much violence and vulgar language.

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