Spike Lee: Sucker Free City (2004) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: Sucker Free City (2004)

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K-Luv is slinging drugs and dodging cops while trying to maintain the fragile peace in his crew.  Nick starts to wonder what he can skim from his office when his family has to move out of their home.  Lincoln is a rising figure of the Chinese mafia who may have great success if he can control his temper.  These three are trying to get by in San Francisco, and will have an effect on each other's lives in unexpected ways.  Spike Lee directs Sucker Free City from a script by Alex Tse, starring Anthony Mackie, Ben Crowley, and Ken Leung.

The three cornersWhen we talked about Clockers, I mentioned how Spike Lee's film seemed to be a dry run in style and content to The Wire.  I'm still torn when thinking about Clockers because it does well enough on its own to warrant considering on its own terms.  Now, nine years later, comes Sucker Free City, and the comparison between Spike's story of interconnected street-level morality and David Simon's now immortalized series is inevitable.

Sucker Free City was originally filmed as a pilot for a Showtime series which never materialized.  Based on the results of Sucker Free City it's not hard to imagine why.  HBO helped ignite the modern golden age of television and Showtime has almost always been the "ok but not quite good enough" cousin.  Sucker Free City, by this extension, is the "ok but not quite good enough" cousin to The Wire.  There are notable and important differences between the two series, and Sucker Free City does not have the same level of formalism and structure which made The Wire such a joy to untangle as it carries Spike's restless visual stamp and willingness to delve directly into the characters personal lives.

The problem is if Sucker Free City feels like a lite version of The Wire, then Spike's efforts here feel like a lite version of Spike.  We will never know how personally involved he wanted to be with the series after the pilot, and it's entirely possible this was just a director for hire project.  But there's a vitality missing from Sucker Free City, a pulse that makes each character race almost inevitably toward whatever fate waits for them.   We see the trademark center framed character shot introducing the main players but without the magnetic pull of the double-dolly.  The soundtrack is oddly quiet, settling almost entirely on diagetic noises (something that distinguished The Wire), but doesn't have the usual hum of street life.  Spike's tendency to cut to thematically related images during conversations (which was pushed to the breaking point in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus) is here replaced by cuts to directly related images.  K-Luv (Anthony Mackie) talks to his mother about his absent brother, and the camera cuts to multiple different photos of when their family was together.

It was hard to muster much enthusiasm for Sucker Free City, and it makes me long for the all-in insanity of She Hate Me.  Were you able to muster much of anything, or is Sucker Free City raw craft and little else?‏

GhostsI liked it a bit better than you did, but it doesn't feel like Spike had much of anything in it aside from maybe helping launch a project that stood to benefit from his name being attached. One thing that stuck out to me here—and I think it goes along with the lack of Spike-trademarked formal touches that you mentioned—is how the narrative is constructed to weave in and out of the characters' lives. Spike didn't write the script, and the story is more subdued in its pacing and structure than usual. There's a patience in allowing the three central characters to intersect naturally that marks the full-order series intentions, but when they do eventually cross paths Spike lets the scenes play at a lower volume than we expect—the characters don't jump so directly to the differences and conflicts underscoring their relationships.

The problem here of course is that this lack of urgency in the plot is driven by the fact that Sucker Free City isn't a movie—it's concerned with establishing a narrative and thematic base from which to work, and so there's no real endpoint that the characters can move toward. The most interesting of these for me was Mackie's K-Luv (redeeming himself from the debacle of She Hate Me), and he's also the only one that gets some hint of an actual arc—that final scene is kind of haunting, and one of the moments Lee steps up and puts a distinctive stamp on things.

I would have been curious to see more of Sucker Free City if it had gotten picked up—it would have been interesting to have a foil to something like The Wire that didn't concern itself at all with structures of authority beyond the street level. There's nothing here to suggest it would have required more of Spike's (fairly muted) involvement, so as part of this project there's not a ton to say about it, and knowing now that there won't ever be any further continuation of the story and characters, I don't see much of a point in seeking it out, even for fans of Spike's.‏

Partners nowNewer Andrew cutout commentaryNow that we've got a common reference point for She Hate Me I'm going to be curious how many more times it's brought up before we finish this project.  It's a debacle, no doubt about it, but insane in a way that breathes life into the surroundings.  I'm not as certain Mackie is "redeemed" of his earlier performance in She Hate Me because of his work here.  Mekhi Phifer's work as Strike in Clockers was trafficking in similar territory but was a richer performance, especially in the scenes involving Strike and children.  Mackie's work here is indicative of the rest of the project, a sort of distant echo of the kinds of moral issues they might have thought they would get to work with in later episodes.

As you put it, Sucker Free City is not a movie, but even as television it's not very good.  Lincoln (Ken Leung) begins and ends mostly as an enigma, and his entire storyline could have been cut out of this release with nary an ill-effect on the rest of the narrative flow.  Even the moment where he kills the old man comes off as a sort of "gotcha" television moment and I was too aware of how different it was from the rest of the scenes to really register the terrifying image of the old man in a full bath with his mouth and hands duct taped.  Nick's (Ben Crowley) storyline is probably the worst, if only because he and his family are written as though they are afflicted with a disease which makes them state their thoughts as though they've never met one another.  Nick's sister says, "Well, thank you for the cliff notes version of why I went to college," and I wish the dialogue exchanges were as brief and to the point as she expresses.

I understand there's a certain level of narrative structuring required to bring the audience up to speed on what's happening in any story.  But Sucker Free City is filled with moments that underscore the realization that we're watching a television show.  We're not jumping in with these characters at a crucial point in their lives, but listening to characters explain themselves as though they are writers pitching ideas.  Sucker Free City is just too sketchy, threadbare, and stylistically dull to stand up to a good trashy episode of CSI.‏

Tiny Kyle CommentaryOne of the things that could have been more interesting to look at would have been the ramifications of the various murders in the film—even the Chinese mafia backlash against Lincoln is focused solely on his punishment within the structure of the organization, and in the whole plot point seems odd considering he's not initially introduced as a bad person, just kind of a dick. Then you have the two murders K-Luv grapples with—the killing of a child taken almost directly from The Wire, but here used for shock value, and his own murder of a fellow gang member—the effects of which aren't explored here either. It's a shame Lee couldn't go back and shoot some additional footage after the pilot was passed on in order to craft this into a full narrative.

Either way, this is a pretty minor, mostly throwaway effort. I won't say I'd rather watch She Hate Me again instead, but I probably would watch something like Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, and everyone would be better off watching Clockers.‏

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Next, 2nd podcast roundup.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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