Except for disapproving asides in Jungle Fever and Malcolm X, Spike Lee has largely avoided the drugz-’n’-gunz material that Hollywood has shoved down the throats of young black filmmakersincluding Lee’s own gifted collaborator, Ernest Dickerson, whose embodied the pitfalls of the genre. With , Lee does his damnedest to destroy the genre altogether. Adapted from Richard Price’s 1992 novel, is less interesting for its sputtering police-procedural narrative than for the unflagging inventionand sheer calculationwith which Lee attacks gangsta culture.
retains the basic premise of Price’s book: A body torn apart by bullets is discovered on a Brooklyn street, and an unlikely killer quickly steps forwarda hardworking, unfailingly polite family man named Victor Dunham. As homicide detectives investigate his confession, a retiring cop, Rocco Klein, becomes convinced that Victor is covering up for somebodyand that somebody seems to be Strike, Victor’s brother, a teenage “clocker” who hustles crack around the clock. As Rocco closes in, the bright, sensitive Strike senses that his life is heading toward a dead end.
In adapting Price’s novel, Lee has trimmed most of the book’s juicy subplots about the world of the policetheir acquaintances and prejudices, the fragmented home lives that show the weight of so much darkness on their souls. Instead, Lee focuses on Strike, played by newcomer Mekhi Phifer in a remarkable debut, and his relationship to his shadowy mentor, Rodney Little.
Rodney, a cracklord Fagin with a mirthless grin, is a particularly rich creationa hipster Satan who fancies himself foremost a businessmanand in Delroy Lindo’s mesmerizing performance he’s seductive and scary. He’s what passes for a father in Strike’s neighborhood, and his lulling crackpipe of a voice hooks kids. Rodney clocks doses of approval, and he thinks nothing of cutting off the supply.
The movie’s primary achievement is its oppressive, brutally tactile urban atmosphere, realized brilliantly by Lee, production designer Andrew McAlpine, and the first-time director of photography, 27-year-old Malik Hassan Sayeed. Using manipulated film stocks and a variety of distorting lenses, Lee and Sayeed have created the most distinctive visual scheme for a movie since : Every surfaceconcrete, asphalt, skingleams hard and cold as gunmetal. Nothing absorbs light; it just hangs in the air, like dust. The look is derived partly from the stark visual punch of rap videos, which makes even more fascinating. It’s a work designed to subvert its own influencesto spoil them for its audience.
Lee has said in interviews that he wants to be the movie that kills off gangsta mystique. It won’t, but not from any failure on Lee’s part. is a masterful piece of anti-propaganda. Lee shows the pervasive influence of the signals bombarding his clockersthe gangsta rap that glorifies guns, the malt liquor commercials that equate drinking with escapewhile making the products look as unappealing as possible. (Lee himself appears as a glassy-eyed spectator sucking on a beer bottle.) The clockers are repeatedly humiliated in publicdespised by neighbors, hated by parents, slapped by strong women. Bullets rip holes in flesh and knock out teeth, and tough guys scream when they die.
Clockers works beautifully: the look, the acting (including yet another great Harvey Keitel performance and a heartbreaking turn by Isaiah Washington as Victor), the pungency and hip-hop immediacy of the dialogue by Lee and Price. What doesn’t work is the crime subplot, which turns out to be disappointingly routine and unnecessarily convoluted. And even though I understand Lee’s decision to end the movie on a note of hopethat redemption is beyond no one’s grasp, no matter how great their crimesit’s filmed in far too romantic a style for the story that has preceded it.
Nevertheless, the ending is still infinitely preferable to the exploitative nihilism that closes most urban gangsta dramas. And so, flaws and all, is . It cements Spike Lee’s place as the tough-love humanist of the American cinemathe messenger who delivers the bad news without losing his faith in good people.Jim Ridley
Misery Loves Company
Writer-director James Gray’s debut film Little Odessa is a cold, bleak tale of familial shame, dark defeats, and the soul-deadening routines of everyday life. It stars Tim Roth as Joshua, a Russian Mafia hit man who returns home to Brooklyn, where he is persona non grata to his family and his fellow criminals (who want him dead for some vague past offense). The story is told through the eyes of his younger brother Reuben (Edward Furlong), who admires Joshua’s worldly cool, particularly in the face of their drab home life. Their mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave) is dying of a brain tumor, and their father (Maximillian Schell) cheats on her to escape his pathetic job at a newsstand, a job he’s apparently forced to hold because he won’t play ball with the mob.
Little Odessa is beautifully shot, well acted, and has a complex, nuanced storyand yet it may well be the most miserable moviegoing experience I’ve ever had. It starts at a low ebb in its character’s lives and just keeps tunneling lower; just when you think the story can’t get any more depressing, Gray pulls another dingy rabbit out of his moth-eaten hat. All crime films are in some way about death, but Little Odessa may be the first crime film completely immersed in death’s chilly formality. Most of the film we spend just waiting for people to dieit’s like Reservoir Dogs directed with Ingmar Bergman’s glacial reserve.
The story revolves around Joshua’s attempt to mobilize the execution of a kingpin from another Russian Mafia “family.” Gray focuses on the long (very long, long) stretches before a crime is committed, and through somber cantorial music and static shots of snowy New York streets he creates an atmosphere of existential dread. His command of the film’s environment is impressive: In most New York films, the city is more walked through than lived in, but Gray plunges us into a fully realized Jewish community. He immerses us in the Mafia’s plans and the family’s pain without giving us too much information; he trusts that we’ll pick up on the heavy doings afoot, and indeed we are swamped by portentousness and the feeling that every spare line of dialogue is getting at something deep and poetic.
If only we knew what it was; if only Gray would just tell us. Pieces of information seem to be missing from the storypieces that might tell us why there’s so much tension between Joshua and his father, or why Reuben has chosen a life of idleness. Little Odessa pushes toward astounding revelations about the hard life of Russian Jews and the specific trials that have shattered one family’s peace, but Gray continually pulls back before we can get too close. He seems to know exactly what’s going onindeed, the film has the confidence of a director in total command of his materialbut it’s as though he’s shrouding his characters in mystery to keep them unsympathetic. In his obsession with brooding angst, Gray alienates all but the most masochistic in his audience.
There are too many marvelously conceived scenes in Little Odessa for the film to be dismissed. Best of all is the climactic gunfight, which is one of the best photographed, best edited I have ever seen. It takes place behind waving sheets of laundry, hung out to dry like the characters that surround them. Rather than the quick, confusing close-ups of standard action movie gunfights, Gray uses jittery medium shots that reveal the full, terrifying scenario. We see the shooters long before they fire, and we feel the devastation of every cruel bullet. The sequence is brilliant and punishing.
Unfortunately, when all is said and done, it’s the audience that’s punished, and I’m not sure we deserve it. For all its haunting, affecting moments, there’s not much meaning to be extracted from the film’s unrelenting grayness. Little Odessa is an accomplished piece of moviemakingand I hope I never have to sit through it again.
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