FILM: Spike, up to a point

SPIKE LEE's Clockers (18) represents a new departure for the director, if not a new dawn. The films that made Lee's controversial name (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever) had the deceptive feel of cinematic parables - deceptive because Lee had carefully complicated the expected morals. Shot in blazing, luminous colours, these films revelled in bright clashes of opposing views. By contrast, Clockers is a murkier beast altogether, prowling over a grey area of morality, and challenging the viewer to make out a moral in the gloom. Gone are the carefully intertwined dialectical choices - protest or silence, race or love, Malcolm or Martin. Replacing them, some would say for the first time in Lee's work, is the real world.

Clockers is set in the projects of Brooklyn: an almost literal wasteland, which, with its teenagers milling and dealing around grey concrete benches, resembles a cross between a market, a playground and a battlefield. The central character, Strike (newcomer Mekhi Phifer), like so many of his contemporaries, deals crack cocaine on a 24-hour, around-the-clock basis (hence the title). Strike and his like are kept under weary surveillance by cops like veteran Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) and his belligerently racist sidekick (John Turturro). When a local store-owner is shot dead, Strike is suspected by Rocco Klein. But it is his clean-living brother who confesses to the crime. In a softer, more traditional movie, Klein might have mused: "Something doesn't quite fit." Here he bullies and harasses Strike in the hope of a confession.

In the Richard Price novel on which Clockers is based, there is a daring moral equivalence drawn between Strike and Rocco: not the usual one between hunter and hunted, but a sense in which each man's job - being a cop and being a drug-dealer - springs out of a similar neurosis, a sense of entrapment in the life society has imposed on him. When Lee took over Clockers from its original director Martin Scorsese (now the film's producer), he re-wrote Price's script, reducing the emphasis on Klein. White middle-aged crises weren't for Lee. As a result, the movie feels unbalanced, the white characters more cursorily explored than the black. Klein's actions take on a strange ambivalence at the climax, not hinted at in his pinched persona. We are left with a mystery about this man that Lee has never really bothered to explore.

Lee would argue that he is tackling a black subject, and that to view it through the prism of white experience would be a distortion. Certainly, when it deals with black lives, Clockers becomes powerfully complex. While displaying the trail of death and destruction wrought by drug-trafficking, Lee presents also the lucre and lifestyle that it opens up for a kid such as Strike - the opportunity that is otherwise barely a dream. Likewise, Lee's presentation of overlord Delroy Lindo, whose grocery store serves as a front for his drug-running operation, is daringly two-sided. He is a conscienceless killer, dealing destruction through his young charges; but he also plays a pastoral role, as teacher and confessor - the father so many of his henchmen do not have.

This is Lee's most visually interesting film since Do the Right Thing, with a look, provided by Lee and his first-time photographer Malik Sayeed, both strident and raw. The interiors glow with colourful Caribbean combinations - blue-greens against blacks and yellow; while, using unusual film stocks, Lee gives the exteriors a grainy hyper-realism. Lee's non-stop visual invention provides an edgy, unsettling quality, as if he were using flashy technique as a guard against complacency. He establishes his rugged, perilous terrain with crane shots - at the beginning and end of the film - and with long, shaky lenses that hint at police surveillance. The oppressive police vigilance is reflected too in a giant close-up of Keitel's eye-ball, which at one point engulfs Strike's reflection. Lee only goes over the top when he uses JFK-style halos of light around the characters in an interrogation scene. Such excess kills the drama Stone dead.

The chief pleasure of Clockers is its feel for the jiving, splenetically vibrant lingo of the street, in which you sense the baroque barbs of Richard Price and Lee's earthier wit fruitfully mixed. Performances are more variable: Phifer's Strike is not quite striking enough, and Keitel coasts; the pick is Lindo's godfather, by turns menacing and nurturing. Lee has been at pains to talk of Clockers as a directing assignment. He has safely delivered the movie from the dangers of stereotype and sensationalism inherent in the drugs genre. But some of the fire and rage of his earlier work is missing. That seems to have endeared him to some critics, who mistake disengagement for maturity. But this director, who thrives on fury, is not quite himself without putting a few noses out of joint.

Robert Rodriguez's Desperado (18) is a conflagration masquerading as a movie: the big-bang theory of film-making. Antonio Banderas plays a brooding Mariachi intent on revenge for the murder of his girl-friend at the hands (or orders) of a man called Bucho. But it is not just Bucho who gets it in the neck - and anywhere else exposed to the steady clatter of bullets from Banderas's ever-primed weapons. Not by a long way: the dusty roads and dingy bars of the Mexican setting are soon so heaped with corpses they resemble the banks of the Styx. Rodriguez's ingenious slapstick violence ensures the bodies are dispatched to oblivion at least with the benediction of wit. At one point Banderas goes to confession: "Bless me father, for I have killed quite a few men."

Desperado is the more moneyed sequel to Rodriguez's shoe-string debut, El Mariachi. Working with a similar plot, the movie seems to have gained a budget but lost its point. El Mariachi had an absurdist edge: a shoot- out between good and evil, in which it became impossible to tell the two apart - a spaghetti-western game of blind-man's buff. Desperado is empty of everything but the retort of gun-fire and lush, rapidly edited, rock-video-style images. Quentin Tarantino turns up to tell a trademark juvenile shaggy dog story. And Salma Hayek provides luscious love interest and slinky dancing. But Rodriguez's film-making has got bloated, along with his budget, and it misses the lean narrative drive of his debut. When Banderas suavely twiddles his pistols, Hayek just looks bored - and we feel the same.

"Paris is small for those who are in love," reckoned Baptiste, self-interestedly, in Les Enfants du Paradis. For Eric Rohmer's characters in Rendez-Vous in Paris (PG), flitting in and out of love, it is slightly larger: a place to roam and romance, between art galleries and parks, their steps reflecting the circuitous paths of their emotions. Rendez-Vous in Paris is a trilogy of short films - romantic short stories. The first and strongest deals with a girl's suspicions about her boyfriend's infidelity; the second, more philosophical, is about the location of love, the environment it needs to thrive - a couple only meet on walks around Paris; in the final section, the wispiest of all, a young painter follows a girl out of an art gallery, thinking he may have found a kindred spirit. Here the danger in Rohmer's film- making style becomes apparent: an abstraction that can leave the real world behind altogether. The girl invites herself up into the stranger's loft, without a frisson of fear (hasn't she seen Dressed to Kill?). But this unworldliness is matched by an attention to detail and dialogue that makes Rohmer's world more real and recognisable than that of almost any of his peers. After a hiatus in which his work was not released in this country, it is good to welcome him back - albeit, judging by the home- movie production values, working on a reduced budget.

John Henderson's Loch Ness (PG) contains everything you would expect: a cynical American scientist (Ted Danson); an attractive but at first inhospitable landlady (Joely Richardson); surly Scottish locals drinking whisky galore; skirls of bagpipes on the soundtrack; lines like "but that night was going to change our lives forever"; and, of course, an appearance by the monster (courtesy of Jim Henson's animatronic workshop). For all the familiarity of its components, it's a reasonably engaging yarn, with Ted Danson proving once again that he's not a movie star, but an enjoyable screen presence.

Alfonso Cuaron's A Little Princess (U) has won acclaim from critics in the States ("a children's classic") and has been resolutely ignored by audiences. I'm on the side of the audiences. This adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's story of a young girl left by her father at an exclusive school is handsome but hollow. The film has an air of gilded condescension, belying the book's theme of the nobility of the human spirit. Every little girl is supposed to be a princess, but here it looks as if every one is a budding supermodel - blandly beautiful, exquisite but emotionless.

The artist Robert Longo's directorial debut Johnny Mnemonic (15), in which Keanu Reeves plays a courier carrying information in an electronic chip planted in his brain, is another blow to the cyber-film genre. The movie is a tedious mess, leaving us all, like Keanu, wearily scratching our heads and complaining of "information overload".

Cinema details: Review, page 68.