Last Exits In Brooklyn

In the Brooklyn housing project that is the setting of Spike Lee's grimly passionate Clockers, the 19-year-old Strike (Mekhi Phifer) conducts his business-selling crack-from a park bench, taking swigs of chocolate Yoo-Hoo to soothe his raging ulcer, a byproduct of his high-risk trade. Strike has a lot to worry about, and his ulcer won't get better before his tale is told. The cops, led by Det. Roeco Klein (Harvey Keitel), periodically swoop down on the projects, subjecting Strike to humiliating strip searches. Ten-year-old Tyrone (Pee Wee Love) has become enamored of the dealer's swagger, outraging both his upright mother and Andre (Keith David), the gigantic neighbor cop who threatens to break Strike's bones if he gets this good kid into trouble.

Even worse, Strike's Fagin-like mentor, Rodney (Delroy Lindo), wants him to ice a dealer named Darryl. Strike's never killed a man, but it will lead to a promotion, a chance to get off the benches into a more secure side of the business.

Darryl ends up dead, but did Strike do it? Rocco Klein thinks so, even though another man has confessed--Strike's model-citizen brother Victor (Isaiah Washington), a decent family man holding down two jobs in an effort to work his way out of the projects. Klein's gut tells him Victor is covering for his brother-and he sets out to get his man.

The outlines of the story come straight from Richard Price's densely researched and highly praised novel "Clockers" (slang for dealers who'll work round the clock). But Lee, who rewrote Price's screenplay, has altered the tale to address his own concerns. From the ghastly snapshots under the opening credits-crime-scene photos of young, black male corpses-to the background glimpses of violent videogames and music clips glamorizing gun-packing rappers, Lee announces his furious protest at the culture of violence that has decimated the black urban community. There are moments when Lee's didactic impulse gets the better of him--he literally enshrines his message, Stop Packing, on a billboard. But more often the filmmaker adroitly uses his anger to fuel his storytelling, catching the viewer in a taut web of conflicting and painful emotions.

This is the first Lee movie based on someone else's novel, and it feels different. His usual stop-start rhythms are less pronounced here; the dramatic pressure builds in a straighter line. The look is grittier (he's got an impressive new cinematographer, Malik Hassan Sayeed) and though there are still obtrusive stylistic flourishes, he's more willing to settle into the characters and let them dictate the flow of the story.

Where Price split the novel equally between Strike and Rocco, Lee puts the young drug dealer at center stage. Phifer had no acting experience before this role, but his charisma makes up for his lack of technique. You find yourself both despising Strike's blindly are oral opportunism and pulling for his survival. Keitel is extraordinary at capturing Rocco's ambiguous mixture of cynicism and idealism, professionalism and self-delusion. And Lindo's smooth, paternal Rodney is superb: if there's an outright villain, he comes closest, but like all good devils, he speaks with a seductive reasonableness. He's the kind of guy who warns his dealers never to touch the product he's happy to sell. It's only when he thinks Strike has crossed him that we get a terrifying glimpse of his viciousness.

"Clockers" may be Lee's strongest film since "Do the Right Thing," but he runs into trouble at the end when he tries to tie up all his threads in neat bows. Though this isn't a murder mystery, the killer's motivation is far too murky, and his ultimate fate raises more questions than it answers. In Lee's understandable eagerness to let a few rays of hope shine, the polemicist trips up the dramatist--movie conventions replace honest observation. But the passion of this raw, mournful urban epic remains in spite of the false moves. You won't find it easy to shake.