Brooklyn. Strike (Mekhi Phifer) is a small-time drug runner answering to Rodney (Delroy Lindo), who hangs around with his friends in the projects. Detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) is investigating the shooting of the night man at a fast-food restaurant. Strike’s older brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) has turned himself in for the murder, but Klein doesn’t believe him. Together with his colleague Larry Mazilla (John Turturro), Klein is determined to find the real killer, and fingers are pointing towards Strike…
Clockers begins with another distinctive title sequence: a series of shots of crime scenes and murder victims set to Marc Dorsey singing “People in Search of a Life”. The sense of waste is palpable. This sequence also serves as a warning to the squeamish, though the MPAA content advisory for “strong graphic violence” is a little misleading. The shooting on which the plot depends happens offscreen for obvious dramatic reasons, but we do see, in close-up, the gruesome details of the corpse. This is a bleak film about lives cut short, of an existence with few ways out except criminality and a probable violent death.
Richard Price is a distinguished screenwriter and occasional novelist. Clockers was the product of considerable research and was a hot property when it was published, Universal buying the film rights for $1.9 million. At first Martin Scorsese was to direct, but he elected to make Casino instead and offered the film to Lee to direct, remaining on board as an executive producer. Clockers was Lee’s first film as a director for hire, though in becoming so he acted as a “smuggler” (in Scorsese’s own term), bringing unusual and personal angles in what could have been a routine genre piece. The novel and original screenplay put Klein at centre stage throughout. Lee rewrote the script (and receives joint credit with Price) to shift the emphasis more towards Strike and his friends. The casting of Keitel as the casually racist cop Klein was a compromise: Lee wanted John Turturro for the role. Turturro eventually played the secondary role of Mazilla. There’s nothing wrong with their performances but they’re not at the heart of this film, and it’s work they’ve been done before. Mekhi Phifer – in his big-screen debut – gives a remarkable performance. He’s the unknown quantity here, and it’s him you remember. He’s since gone on to be a familiar face on screens large and small, but I doubt that many of his roles are as good as this one.
Once again, Lee shows an interest in visual stylisation which, by this time in his career, seems less self-conscious, more in service to his subject matter. Following his principles of promoting people of colour, Lee’s DP on Clockers (and his following three films, Girl 6, He Got Game and The Original Kings of Comedy) was Malik Hassan Sayeed, who had been Best Boy on Crooklyn. Lee and Sayeed shoot the film on what looks like reversal stock, which increases the grain and contrast. In the interrogation sequences, they take this approach to an extreme, with deep blacks and blown-out whites. It’s an appropriate technique for gritty subject matter, and it works. Stark realism is the order of the day, so much so that the plethora of street slang in the early stages may be hard on many people’s ears, making the film take a while to settle and establish its hold. This is one film where DVD subtitles may well be very useful, even if you’re not hard of hearing or a non-native speaker of English.
Clockers forms part of Universal’s Spike Lee Joint Collection, five films on three discs, sharing a two-sided disc with Jungle Fever. The DVD is encoded for Region 1 only.
Given the nature of Sayeed’s photography, as described above, this cannot have been the easiest DVD to produce. But as with the other films in this set, the transfer is fine, faithful to the grainy, contrasty and blown-out look of this film. Clockers is in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced.
As with many Universal releases of the time, the only soundtrack option was DTS, either digital or their analogue format. However, on DVD the only option is Dolby Digital 5.1. It’s not the most adventurous of soundtracks, using the surrounds for music, ambience and the occasional directional effect. Dialogue is always audible (though as I mention above, not always clear due to heavy accents). The subwoofer contributes to the menacing bassline leading up to a shooting late in the film. There are eighteen chapter stops and no extras.
Clockers is an absorbing crime story, though inevitably too bleak and downbeat for many people. There’s no doubt as to its being well made, and it rounds off a collection which is certainly value for money.