MASSIVE AND METICULOUS, Richard Price's Clockers is one of the few great novels of the late 20th Century. To do it full-scale justice on film would require the instincts of a Fritz Lang, the lavishness of a Michael Cimino, and the backing of investors willing to finance a magnificent four hour flop destined to become a cult classic in 20 years. Spike Lee, possessing none of these, has wisely pared it down to its core. The result is a slick, tight film which should restore Lee's reputation among those who accuse him of squandering his talent, and reprimand those who (obviously never having seen Do The Right Thing) maintain he had none to start with.
The plot is one of drug-dealing and murder in the New York projects, but that's not what the film is about. The film is about how the projects themselves, created (like so many British council estates) in a flush of idealism, have degenerated from launchpads to dead-end crime zones. If this sounds like a cue for Lee to snatch earnestness from the jaws of excitement, he's missed it. His film owes more to Martin Scorsese than to the Jane Fonda school of sociology - quite literally, as producer Scorsese, who originally planned to direct, gave way to his
disciple after a barrage of lobbying; a decision which, however generous, has unsavoury overtones.
It doesn't matter, because Clockers is fast, enthralling and effective. At this stage, tradition demands I outline the plot, but I'd rather leave you the pleasure of seeing it unfold for yourself. Suffice to say that teenager Strike (in a convincingly taciturn debut by Phifer), a smart corporal in a drug-dealing army, finds himself caught between New York's Homicide cops (Keitel and Turturro, reliable as always), the narcotics squad, and his own employees, which last make both the Devil and the deep blue sea look like attractive options. Set mainly in only two locations, Clockers is as claustrophobic as the source novel is terrifyingly expansive. As Strike's world closes in on him, the cameras whirl, seeking space and finding only barriers.
It was Lee who kick-started the wave of black urban movies in the States. He is an agile director when he chooses, and Clockers far surpasses the work of his successors, mainly because he remembers that thrillers are supposed to thrill and comedy entertain. It's good cinema and strong polemic. See it, then read the book and be truly amazed.