City Paper is not for tourists
Spike Lee’s reading of Clockers, adapted from Richard Price’s screenplay of his own novel, begins with a parade of bloody bodies. The photos of simulated corpses that accompany the film’s credits are an essential part of Lee’s strategy: He wants to make the horror of inner-city slaughter palpable, no doubt in the hope of shocking at least a few young toughs into renouncing the ways of the gun. All those bodies, however, also symbolize what the director has done to Price’s book: He’s rendered it purely corporeal, excising the interior lives that made Clockers more than just gangsta lit.
Lee shares scriptwriting credit with Price, who originally adapted his novel for Martin Scorsese. (Scorsese was going to direct, but ended up instead one of the film’s producers.) Though Lee has retained most of Price’s basic plot and significant chunks of his dialogue, the two sensibilities don’t exactly mesh. Where the novel tried to humanize two hard-bitten cinematic archetypes—burned-out but earnest middle-age white detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) and young African-American drug dealer Strike (Mekhi Phifer)—Lee is less interested in character. Lee turns Rocco and Strike back into the cop/dealer universals they were before Price demonstrated that they could be more particular.
Lee does this, of course, with plenty of style. Emulating JFK‘s use of different film stocks for different sorts of scenes, Lee and cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed give the film a garish, red-dominated radiance—an almost-lyrical rendition of the cheap, poorly exposed look of Super-8 film, Instamatic portraiture, and hidden-camera footage. Lee can’t resist occasionally subordinating the story to his signature gimmicks—yes, he does that gliding pull-back shot again—but most of his strategies are effective.
That style upstages storytelling, however, shows how far Clockers has ambled from Price’s ambitions. The film remains the tale of how Strike—still a Maalox-swilling around-the-clock small-time dealer, a “clocker,” but no longer a stutterer—is asked by his boss Rodney (Delroy Lindo) to kill another dealer, Darrell Adams, whose dead-meat form is poked, probed, and joked over in the film’s central scene. After the murder, Strike’s seemingly straight-arrow brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) confesses to the crime, but Rocco doesn’t buy it; he thinks the wrong brother has implicated himself. He and his partner Mazilli (John Turturro in an underdeveloped role) keep hounding Strike, hoping for a confession, as Rodney becomes increasingly suspicious of his protégé. Ultimately, Rocco succeeds in effecting a crisis in Strike’s life, but not with the result he had planned.
Lee has moved the action from a northern New Jersey project to one in his native Brooklyn, sacred ground where magical occurrences (like the appearance of the director as a bystander to the aftermath of several murders) are common. He’s also enlisted the likes of Seal and Bruce Hornsby for an incongruous anti-gangsta soundtrack heavy on ballads, and somewhat altered the novel’s scenario, sometimes with mystifying results. Victor’s motivation, not one of the book’s more convincing elements, becomes even more difficult to fathom after his troubled marriage is replaced with an exemplary one, while Victor and Strike’s mother, a sad presence on the phone in the book’s telling of a crucial scene, boldly invades the police station in person in the film’s version.
Lee is fundamentally a propagandist, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The history of cinema contains some stirring, even beautiful examples of propaganda. (Indeed, the director’s Malcolm X is one of them.) Lee has announced that Clockers is intended to culminate the gangsta-film genre, and in passing the movie indicts those who benefit commercially from gangsta-ism: He intercuts his own cops ‘n’ dealers footage with shots of comic books, computer games, and music videos that glamorize ghetto gun culture, as if to accuse them of the film’s deaths.
Such flourishes distract from the story without offering convincing explanations for the world Price depicted. Fortunately, Phifer, Lindo, and Keitel—keeping his intensity buttoned-down for a change—don’t look beyond their characters, which are compelling even if less rounded than in the book. They keep the movie from turning into a tract, which is probably for the best. Like most of Lee’s films, Clockers fails to achieve a suitable balance between narrative and didacticism, but its attempt to do so is a worthy struggle. It’s just that, in claiming Price’s nuanced novel as his own turf, Lee seems to have seized the wrong place to stage his battle.
Nominally set in Manhattan, Hackers has one foot in cyberspace but its head in London, where director Iain Softley’s notions of a culture that combines computer hacking, video games, skateboarding, and techno music have some (theoretical) currency. For all its trendiness, though, this is fundamentally a teen adventure/romance flick, and a fairly tired one.
The film opens with the 1988 conviction of underage Seattle hacker Dade Murphy for cybermessing with a corporate computer bank. Seven years later, he’s still on probation when he and his mom move to New York. At his new high school, Dade (Jonny Lee Miller) is typed as a rube by his fellow classmates, notably foxy Kate Libby (Angelina Jolie). Soon they discover his computer abilities, however, and Dade (who’s been logging on lately as “Crash Override”) is accepted. Except that is, by Kate (who hacks under the cybertag “Acid Burn”); rather than becoming the girlfriend he fantasizes about, Kate instead is a rival.
The plot becomes even more baroque when one of the school’s junior hackers, Joey, snags some incriminating data from the mainframe of a major oil company. He doesn’t know it, but he’s acquired evidence that corporate computer whiz Eugene (Fisher Stevens) is skimming cash from his employer’s electronic coffers. Eugene responds by setting his own evil program in action—one that will cause all the company’s tankers to flip over and flood the world’s oceans with crude oil—and blaming it on the hacker. Federal agents are soon pointing automatic rifles in the faces of Joey, Dade, and their pals, and the only hope for the kids—and the world’s oceans!—is a cyberalliance against Eugene. With the environment at stake, even Dade and Kate are prepared to collaborate.
Despite the clickety synthbeats of Leftfield, Orbital, and Massive Attack and the trippy graphics representing the film’s cyberstrife—Eugene and the kids ultimately face each other down at their respective keyboards, not in person—Hackers is as corny as any Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie. Its depiction of a multiculti subculture that pulls together to save the environment is as contrived as its fundamentally British notion of a new silicon-chipped youth culture is unconvincing. (Much of the film was shot in London, and even the stuff shot on location depicts an imaginary, candy-coated Manhattan.)
Details ring false like beeping error messages: Rafael Morcu’s script assumes a world where everything, from oil tankers to Manhattan public-high-school sprinkler systems, can be hacked, although in actuality many systems are not computerized, and not all the ones that are can be accessed from outside. The final battle, in which hackers from around the world are summoned to help assault the oil company’s mainframe, is laughably cartoonish; Doom is more realistic than this computer apocalypse.
Crash and Burn belong together, of course, and Kate’s ultimate acceptance of this demonstrates just how retro Hackers is. When Dade and Kate make a cyberbet, with a date as the stakes, Dade informs her that “If I win, you wear a dress on our date.” Sure enough, in the film’s final scene Kate trades in her tight silver cat-suit and red eye shadow for a dress. In Hackers‘ brave new world, sex roles are straight out of Beach Blanket Bingo.