The laughs in Spike Lee’s corrosive “Chi-Raq” burn like acid. Urgent, surreal, furious, funny and wildly messy, the movie sounds like an invitation to defeat, but it’s an improbable triumph that finds Mr. Lee doing his best work in years. Set in contemporary Chicago, where sidewalks are washed with blood, and human hearts beat to the rhythm of gunfire, it takes as its inspiration Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” the fifth-century B.C. comedy in which women organize a sex strike to stop men from making war or, as Mr. Lee puts it with a vulgar flourish, “No peace, no [expletive]!”
The war in “Chi-Raq” is strictly a domestic affair, waged by black male citizens on other black citizens. The main combatants are rival gangs, the Spartans and the Trojans, who have helped turn Chicago into a war zone — hence the tragic, bleak portmanteau title. The gangs seem to take some of their cues from the real Crips and Bloods, whose blue versus red color coding has been translated into Spartan purple and Trojan orange. Flying their respective colors, the Chi-Raq gangs violently run their hoods, or at least think that they rule. There are, as Mr. Lee hammers in rat-a-tat-tat, other economic and political forces in play that, like shadow armies, are doing their murderous part.
Subtlety isn’t in Mr. Lee’s dictionary, which makes him a fine fit for a bawdy comedy that tosses out an orgiastic aside in its first sentence. Gleefully blunt, “Lysistrata” is thought to have been first performed in Athens at a festival of Dionysus, the god of wine. It opens with its title character fretting that the women she’s asked to meet haven’t materialized. Lysistrata’s brilliant, daft idea is that together they can end the bloodshed with a full-body shutdown, which, after much scheming and whining, they do, leaving the men incredulous, desperate and tumescent. Some of the men end up delivering their lines erect, which the ancient Athenian players expressed by wearing artificial phalluses. (Somehow I don’t remember that detail from school.)
Mr. Lee doesn’t go that far, alas, but he does go cinematically all out with exuberant set pieces, musical numbers, bursts of phantasmagoric color, oceans of tears and blunt-force rhetoric. Written in verse, sometimes rhymed and sometimes not, “Chi-Raq” is at once old and new, from its polymorphous narrative strategies to its musical forms (hip-hop, jazz, gospel, R&B), and by turns fiercely funny and deadly sincere. It rolls along smoothly and fitfully, carried by the boldness of Mr. Lee’s conceit, his love of the form and the largely excellent company of artists he’s gathered, including Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes, a loquacious Greek chorus of one who pops in and out with a cane and in a series of lusciously colored suits.
There’s no such character in “Lysistrata,” but Dolmedes’s name and sartorial flamboyance evoke Dolemite, the titular pimp played by the comic Rudy Ray Moore in the 1975 blaxploitation flick. Among the routines thatMr. Moore (1927-2008) was known for is the Signifying Monkey toast, a boasting, humorously raw recitation and linguistic practice (like the Dozens), involving a sly, agitating monkey that provokes a fight between a lion and an elephant. To an extent, Dolmedes registers as a trickster, a wily figure who always shows up at the right time to deliver exposition with a wink and some showy wordsmithing. At the same time, Lysistrata — a magnificent Teyonah Parris — is stirring up trouble, angling to dethrone kings like her guy, a gang leader, Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon).
“Chi-Raq” can be read as an illustration of signifyin(g), to borrow the spelling of Henry Louis Gates Jr., in how it rewrites “the received textual tradition,” as he puts it in his book “The Signifying Monkey.” There are limits to every rewriting, of course, to how far a revision riffs on the idioms, ideas and forms of its influences. Mr. Lee’s most radical move in “Chi-Raq,” which he wrote with Kevin Willmott, is to transport a classical Greek play to a Chicago that is highly fictional and painfully real, geographically specific and unmistakably metaphoric. That this is a movie about the United States is as obvious as the Stars and Stripes that late in the movie looms (as in “Patton”) behind Dolmedes, even as it is also a showbiz showcase for the likes of Dave Chappelle and Wesley Snipes.
The movie opens with a series of shocks, including a red, white and blue graphic of the United States made entirely of guns. This illustration, which creates a visual bookend with Dolmedes’s flag, forms part of the overture, which features a succession of blood-red lyrics blown up on the screen (from the song “Pray 4 My City”), each word reverberating like a shout:
Police sirens, Everyday
People dyin’, Everyday
Mamas cryin’, Everyday
Fathers tryin’, Everyday.
Mr. Lee then raises the stakes with a series of chilling statistics that juxtapose American deaths in the Iraq war from 2003 to 2011 (the movie puts the number at 4,424) with homicides in Chicago from 2001 to 2015 (a staggering 7,356, according to the movie).
These numbers are followed by the voice of the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a real Roman Catholic priest who preaches and agitates in Chicago and is an outspoken critic of gun culture and the National Rifle Association. Father Pfleger, after saying that it’s young black men killing young black men, closes the overture with a prayer: “Heaven help us all.” The flag, the statistics, the guns make for a powerful, unsettling opener, perhaps especially because the movie opens in a week of high-profile mass shootings — and not in Chicago. By virtue of the heaviness of their documentary truth, though, which grows weightier with each number and word, these elements almost torpedo the movie before it begins. Like many filmmakers who draw on the historical record to shore up their fictions, Mr. Lee has to work hard to rise to the challenge of the real world.
That he pulls off “Chi-Raq” is a testament to his cinematic imagination, which he cuts loose with split screens, direct address, surreal fillips and outsize performances. With the composer Terence Blanchard, who wrote the wall-to-wall score, and the cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Mr. Lee creates a “Lysistrata” that entertains, engages and, at times, enrages as it takes on violence, ogles lady parts and expounds on greed and democracy. He stumbles plenty, including in an awkward, didactic scene in which John Cusack, as a priest, delivers a sermon for a dead child. (Jennifer Hudson plays the mother.) Yet while you can argue with Mr. Lee’s ideas, cinematic and political, few directors shake you up this hard, creating laughter that is as bitter as tears.
“Chi-Raq” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Gun violence and expletives. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes.