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Strike (Mekhi Phifer) works long hours, enjoys the unswerving loyalty of his admiring employees and conducts his small, prospering business with ruthless efficiency. Aside from a persistent, insoluble public relations problem--certain elements in the community despise him--he is a model of the entrepreneurial spirit that we like to believe made America great, and at 19 he has the ulcer to prove it. Strike is a crack dealer monopolizing the trade in a Brooklyn, New York, housing project.

Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) is a homicide detective whose cynicism energizes rather than wearies him. He'll match his street smarts against any neighborhood punk's, and he's convinced that Strike must have murdered a rival drug dealer. The only other logical suspect is the kid's older brother Victor (Isaiah Washington), but that makes no sense; the man is working two jobs to support a wife and two kids, trying to engineer a respectable rise in the world.

They are wonderfully well-matched antagonists, Strike and Rocco. The former is wary, sullen and perhaps more ambivalent about his work than he dares to admit. The latter is bustling, voluble and perhaps more sympathetic toward Strike--with everyone trying to survive in this milieu--than he cares to admit. Clockers is careful not to overexplain these figures. Director Spike Lee, who shares screenplay credit with novelist Richard Price, lets Phifer (in his first film role) and Keitel (in his umpty-umpth) find the characters, which they do with unimprovable unpredictability.

But the film is more than a murder mystery and more than a study in character conflict. At its best, it is an intense and complex portrait of an urban landscape on which the movies' gaze has not often fallen. Yes, this housing project is home to a feckless delinquent population. But it is also home to middle-class black families struggling to preserve their values and save their children from drugs, crime and despair.

The confrontations between these people--among them, an angry mom and a tough housing cop--and Strike's clockers (so called because pushers work around the clock) are some of the film's most potent and haunting scenes. Indeed, it's almost as if the director has taken his cue from them instead of the other way around. For there is a force and focus in Lee's work, an absence of intellectual posturing and a willingness to let his material speak for itself that he has not achieved before.

Speak? Well, not exactly. His people howl and mumble, wisecrack and menace, muse and abuse--a lot of the time obscenely. But never idly. The language of Clockers is finally transformative, turning what might have been no more than a slice of mean-streets realism into a sort of rap opera, in which pained recitative prepares the way for anguished (and curiously moving) arias.

But it's an opera without a tragic ending. The sense of doom that begins gathering from the very first moments is suddenly, not quite persuasively, blown away in its final ones. This is not a movie imposition. It's pretty much the conclusion Price chose for his novel. Perhaps understandably. There is a human need to temper misery with mercy. And as we emerge from this exigent movie, we have some reason to be grateful for this last-minute softening of its spirit.