Until a perhaps too hopeful and pat finale, Clockers does not soften its view of young men trapped in a world of dealing out drugs and violence, prompted by a need for financial success and family. Indeed the opening credits play out over a montage of disparate but inseparable imagery: photos of the graphic results of gun violence against memorial murals for the dead against other wall paintings glamorizing gangsters with guns, all while a crowd gathers and gawks from the other end of the police tape.

The film explores both sides of that line — the possible future victims and current survivors (maybe even perpetrators) on one side, and the cops employing gallows humor and preconceived notions (sometimes peppering their statements of that thinking with racism, deep-seated or just aftereffects of becoming jaded from seeing the same crimes with no end in sight day in and out for years) on the other.

Director Spike Lee’s film, a passionate call for some form of sanity in a suicidal cycle, is at the heart of its narrative a mystery. There’s a dead body, and Detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) thinks the police have the wrong man in custody after everyone else on the force considers the case closed.

Klein figures the real killer is Ronald “Strike” Dunham (Mekhi Pfifer), a young man who loves trains, doesn’t talk much to his real family, and sells drugs on the benches of the courtyard of a Brooklyn housing project. He’s also suffering from an ulcer that goes unchecked and untreated. By the final act of the film, he is being torn apart from the inside, retching up blood (Klein watches him pass out on the pavement when the bleeding first starts and drives away, perhaps figuring the kid is getting what he deserves).

The man in jail for the murder is Strike’s brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington), a man working two jobs to support his wife and two children, taking care of his mother, and holding a clean record. It was self-defense, Victor argues, but the scattering of bullet wounds suggests otherwise (Lee does not shy away from the results of gun violence, as the police tug, pull, and flip the victim’s clothes and body to reveal so much of the red stuff). None of it makes sense, but then again, neither does most crime in the area.

It is all about grabbing and holding on to power, especially for the head of the local drug trade, Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), who first suggests Strike kill the victim at the center of the investigation so the kid can move from the benches where the police heat is the hottest. Later on, Rodney explains that the murder isn’t just about a change of location but about trust, or the inherent lack thereof, between the two. Strike simply knows too much about Rodney’s work, so the boss needs for there to be blood on the kid’s hands, too. Rodney went through the same thing with his best friend and lieutenant, Errol (Tom Byrd), now wasting away from AIDS after using a contaminated needle.

The first rule of selling drugs for Rodney is that his workers stay away from the product (the fast track to deterioration is perfectly fine for the suckers who buy it, as long as Rodney and the rest make their money). It’s the same rule Strike passes on to Tyrone (Pee Wee Love), another kid who looks up to the dealers for the cash flow and the appearance of community and camaraderie; like Strike, Tyrone’s father is nowhere to be seen. Strike has Rodney as a substitute, and now Tyrone has Strike.

Rodney pulls Strike one way; Klein yanks him the other. Each man threatens him in the ways they know, expecting the pressure from the other will bring the kid closer to him, and the screenplay for Clockers (by Lee and Richard Price, based on his novel), which drives inevitably toward tragedy and hopelessness, makes a last-minute shift toward the light (Malik Hassan Sayeed’s cinematography echoes, turning from grainy to crystal clear). That is, until the next body shows up.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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