(1995)4Michael CostelloSpike Lee's film adaptation of Richard Price's epic novel on the effects of the crack trade has flashes of the director's characteristic brilliance, but, in its lack of focus and overall familiarity, it falls well short of his best work. A project assumed by Lee after the departure of Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro, its relentless deglamorization of the drug trade suggests that the director was attempting his own Goodfellas (1990). But despite Price's highly tuned ear for the bluster, the edgy evasiveness, and the suicidal delusions of these "clockers," the film often feels like a banal reworking of TV-cop show material, or more accurately, the Warners' socially conscious crime melodramas of the '30s. To his credit, Lee has completely stripped the dealers of the charisma Bogart and Cagney lent to the gangsters in those films, revealing them to be venal, petty, and foolish pawns in a game they must eventually lose. But like Harvey Keitel's enlightened detective, Lee has a measure of compassion for his protagonist Strike (Mekhi Phifer), revealing just how difficult it is for him to extricate himself from a life he begins dimly to grasp as a mistake. It's unfortunate that the dynamics of his relationships with the cops and with the solid citizens struggling for respectability are, at this point, so shopworn. Still, there moments of prime Lee, such as the hallucinatory flashback of Rodney's (Delroy Lindo) first murder, and the editing of the sequence in which Strike describes the virtues of the crack trade to his young protégé. Keitel and Lindo stand out in a cast that is almost uniformly superb, and Terence Blanchard's original, minimalist score is among the film's pleasures.