Anatomy of a Murder. I don't want to get into an argument over intellectual property vs. public entertainment, so I'll go with the homage idea; as an homage, I guess we can assume that this movie will, like Anatomy of a Murder, examine one crime through the lens of somewhat amoral characters. Well, this is a Spike Lee "joint," and he doesn't usually trade in films dealing with complex emotions, so I think that's a pretty safe assumption.
Clockers is based on Richard Price's novel of the same name, and he co-wrote the screenplay with Lee. The title refers to a slang term for drug dealers; if you're clocking, that means you're dealing. Strike (Mekhi Pfifer, in his film debut) is a low-level dealer in the Brooklyn projects. He's not a total scrub, but he's not big time enough to have more than a few subordinates. One day, the big boss, Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), takes Strike aside and tells him that another drug dealer, Darryl Adams (frequent Lee bit player Steve White), is stealing from him. And that is not tolerable; after making sure Strike has access to a gun, Rodney tells him that Darryl has "got to be got," and Strike needs to make sure he gets got. Or gotten. I'm not sure how to conjugate slang. So, the clear implication is that Rodney wants Strike to kill Darryl. Why? Well, Rodney learned a long time ago that, if you are going to trust someone completely, you have to have the ability to blackmail them, just in case; if Strike is going to move up the not-so-corporate ladder, Rodney needs some serious dirt on him. Realizing that Darryl works in a fast food joint next to a bar, Strike heads to the bar to drink a little liquid courage. Inside, he meets his hard-working and honest brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington), and tells him that Darryl is a woman beater. That riles Victor up some, but not nearly enough to get Strike off the job, so he leaves.
Later that night, Detective Klein (Harvey Keitel) is investigating the murder of Darryl Adams. This is not a police procedural, though. The police have a confession to the crime from Victor; Detective Klein doesn't buy the story, though, since Victor has a family, two jobs, and a story full of holes. Klein concludes that Victor is covering for his scummy brother, Strike. He doesn't have any proof, though. Meanwhile, Strike is getting respect and admiration from Rodney and is even mentoring a young kid in the thug life. Nothing screws up the upward mobility of a clocker like attention from the police, though.
I haven't seen many of Spike Lee's movies, but I can say with some knowledge that he is not a fantastic cinematographer or a symbolic filmmaker. He comes up with a story and tells it, and in that he is competent. Despite not having billing above the title, Mekhi Pfifer does pretty well in his first movie role, and it's the lead. He's not great, but he does convey the proper complexity of emotion needed for someone who wants to improve his life, but is surrounded by trouble. Harvey Keitel shares some of the spotlight with Pfifer as a detective that is more stubborn than caring, and his approach to the crime is unusually passive-agressive, which was interesting to watch. I wish John Turturro got a little more attention as his partner, not because I liked his character, but because he is usually fun to watch as an actor. Actually, most of the police suffer from underimaginative dialogue; throw a racist term here and an inappropriate joke there, and you have 90% of the cop lines in the movie. Delroy Lindo was pretty good as the manipulative drug kingpin and Keith David rounded out the main cast well as the angry parent figure in the projects. Michael Imperioli, Sticky Fingaz, and Isaiah Washington are all solid in their small supporting roles.
The problem with this film is that the character of Strike is completely unsympathetic. Why should I care about the struggles of a drug dealer that is willing to let his brother take a murder rap for him? The movie spends a lot of time trying to come up with reasons (because he drinks Yoo-Hoo all the time, because he likes toy trains, because he appears to have stomach ulcers), but it's a waste of time because those answers just aren't good enough. You can argue that Harvey Keitel is the protagonist of the film, but that's not much better. He's not pursuing this case because he needs to solve a crime (Victor confessed), or because he thinks it will make a difference (he doesn't), or because he needs to know the truth. He's doing it because he thinks he's right, which isn't as altruistic of a reason as it may sound. Since Strike isn't supposed to be likable, it is important for Detective Klein to be. Klein isn't a bad guy, but he's not very likable, either.
I get that this movie is about the self-perpetuating cycle of crime in the inner city. I get that this movie isn't going to provide answers to that problem. What I don't understand is why I should care about this story. While Delroy Lindo and Mekhi Pfifer have pretty well-rounded characters, you can't root for them because they do bad things and don't care. In fact, you can argue that they got to get got. The police aren't much better as largely indifferent guys, just punching a time clock for their pay. The most sympathetic and likable character in the whole film is Keith David's and he is barely in the movie. There are so many examples of police procedural stories where you care about the police involved (Law and Order: Jersey Shore Unit), and there are many movies where you care about drug dealers either because they're sympathetic or charismatic (Boyz n the Hood, Scarface). Sometimes, you get a blend of these two types of storytelling (the excellent The Wire), and sometimes the crime itself becomes the interesting part of the movie. I see none of that here. There are a number of good performances and no bad ones (except for Spike Lee's cameo, of course) and the story is told decently well. When it was all said and done, though, I just didn't care.