Review: Clockers (1995)

Director: Spike Lee

***

Does Spike Lee need Ritalin? Looking back at his career, you have to wonder if he has a need to draw your attention to… well, whatever takes his fancy. In each of his films, there is a blatant need to signpost a problem or an obvious fact, or at least to sear some unforgettable images in the back of your mind.

It’s unlikely a jheri-curled John Turturro qualifies as such an image. However, said wig (only the second-best haircut of Turturro’s career after Barton Fink) is just one highlight in Lee’s 1995 crime drama Clockers. Turturro and Harvey Keitel play Detectives Mazilli and Klein, who are investigating the shooting of the owner of a burger joint. A ‘hood named Victor (Isaiah Washington) confesses, but the evidence points to his younger brother, ‘Strike’ (Mekhi Phifer). While Keitel’s Klein pressures Strike for more information, he is also under pressure from his mentor, gang boss Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo) to keep tight-lipped.

For a director whose subtlety is virtually non-existent, Lee exercises notable visual restraint in Clockers. DP Malik Hassan Sayeed uses a bright palette with a lot of natural light, and any directorial flourishes do not bleed into the production design; no garish outfits or neon-lit clubs here, no sir! However, there is a trade-off; instead of a garish look, we get a surprisingly clichéd gang story (courtesy of Lee and Richard Price, author of the source novel), complete with central conflicted hero. To top it off, Strike suffers from intestinal ulcers, which eventually result in him being hospitalised. A metaphor, you say? Clockers is very much aware of the time in which its set (Giuliani was recently elected at the time of shooting), and Lee’s love of NY is clear in how it is represented in the form of Strike, but it’s still a heavy-handed and preachy plot device. That said, Phifer is utterly magnetic as Strike; the stress of his situation is palpable, and is aided by solid support from Keitel and Lindo (incidentally, Keitel and John Tuturro were billed ahead of Phifer on the poster. Is it cos he is black? Lee’s probably pondered that one…). Clockers is a film of its time; relevant then, barely scraping by now on a clichéd tale and excellent performances. Lee will never be stale, but he needs to strive for deeper relevance lest his own repertoire should suffer that fate.

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