A crime drama that is equally as powerful as a gritty portrayal of the housing projects of NYC, this film captures both the essence of the neighborhood as well as the exhausting criminal investigations that result from the drug culture within. The approach is unique as not often is a film that’s dominated by police work also determined to give you an authentic depiction of the community that it’s sworn to protect, yet Lee is talented enough to do just that, delving into the complexities of the personalities and agendas involved on both sides of the law. Lee is fair and honest as he blurs the lines of good and evil and right and wrong, illustrating the difficulty of finding heroes in a criminal justice system that too often is as corrupt as the other side. Instead all of the characters are tragically flawed and painfully human, accompanied by a screenplay that keeps you on the edge of your seat unwilling to trust anyone during the discovery for the truth.
Mekhi Phifer got his breakthrough role as Strike beating out thousands of other applicants during an open casting call, an opportunity that he made the most of. Strike is a young drug dealer who ‘clocks’ for Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), a drug lord to the projects and a mentor to all the ill advised children in the community. On one fateful night Rodney tells Strike about Darryl Adams (Steve White), another dealer who clocks for him at a local fast food restaurant but has been pocketing the money. He informs Strike that if wants to get off the park benches then he needs to take Darryl out, immediately sending Strike through a whirlwind of thoughts while setting in motion the mystery of events that the film dedicates itself to thereafter.
As in all great mysteries the film keeps you guessing, yet Lee’s techniques in particular leave the answers unfounded as the leads tirelessly don’t add up. Who killed Darryl Adams remains in question throughout the duration of the film, as flashback sequences are only reliable as illusions as they rotate between Strike and his entire crew pulling the trigger. Yet it is Strike’s brother Victor, played phenomenally by Isaiah Washington, who winds up confessing to the crime despite a clean track record and no motives as a working man devoted to his wife and children. All the audience knows for sure is that Strike half heartedly tried to persuade Victor the night he was propositioned, otherwise critical scenes manipulate the audience into feeling uncertain about what feels inevitably obvious. One key moment that highlights this ambiguity is an interaction we only see from a distance of the two brothers the day after the murder, a conversation that goes unheard yet the body language inconspicuously says everything, a subtle yet masterful scene that undoubtedly would take a few viewings to fully appreciate. Thus as the days go by Strike roams the streets as a free man while the honorable Victor unconvincingly pleads self defense, much to the great displeasure of one of New York’s finest who is certain that they have the wrong man.
Harvey Keitel plays one of his finest roles as Rocco Klein, a homicide detective that is nobody’s fool unless afflicted by his own prejudice beliefs that he attributes to the reality of the job and the universe. The character is somewhat reminiscent of Danny Aiello’s conflicted demeanor from another great film, as his disposition is fair enough in comparison to his cold hearted partner, played accordingly by John Turturro who plays a role similar to his own in Do The Right Thing. Without any doubt and for good reason Rocco is adamant that Strike is the killer and that Victor is only covering for him, under the ruse that his reputation would make his alibi of self defense believable. Yet Rocco will stop at nothing for the truth, breaking his suspect down through relentless interrogations and public embarrassment that ultimately alienates Strike from his crew and from Lucky, who’s been arrested and led by the police to believe that his understudy betrayed him. With a bounty on his head Strike has no other options other than to surrender to police protection, leading to a humbling revelation that reminds us all to never judge a book by it’s cover.
Not to be overshadowed by a wonderful screenplay is a variety of powerful performances from the supporting cast, including members of ONYX who are unforgettable in their roles as clockers, as well as longtime character actor Tom Byrd in his most menacing role as the neighborhood junkie. The score by Terence Blanchard is also well played along with the original soundtrack that is unconventional at times yet for that reason much more effective. Yet perhaps my favorite aspect of this film is the incredible cinematography by Malik Hassan Sayeed, who has captured Brooklyn a number of times for Lee and each time more beautiful than the last. In closing this is a spectacular film for a multitude of different reasons, mainly because it’s neither the quintessential cop film or street movie but instead the best qualities of both. For my money only HBO’s The Wire is as efficient in evading sensationalism for the beautiful struggle that is reality, and with that in mind as a film this one continues to be in a class of its own.