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July 9, 1999 2:00 AM
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REVIEW: Spike's "Summer of Sam" Sizzles

REVIEW: Spike's "Summer of Sam" Sizzles

by Danny Lorber



"Summer of Sam" is Spike Lee's long hot film about the long hot summer of 1977, brought to a boil by real-life serial killer David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam. Although Sam lurks around the edges of the film, it mostly deals with the destabilizing effect he has on an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx. It's a companion piece to Lee's "Do the Right Thing," although it never reaches the earlier film's level. That film's explosive act of climactic violence had a force of inevitability. This one's seems contrived. But if its overall architecture is flawed, its behavioral detailing is urgent, and the tapestry Lee weaves of his memories and impressions of that blistering season is visual dynamite.


Lee brilliantly solves the problem of how to present Berkowitz without turning the film into a splatter movie or a police procedural. We see Michael Badalucco's Sam only in short bursts. A couple of times we see him walk up to cars parked on dark streets and shoot their occupants. A few times we see him threshing around in his hellhole of a bedroom, where the insane buzz in his head is counterpointed by the buzzing of flies on the soundtrack. After he shoots a neighbor's dog that had been irritating him, the dog becomes a featured player in his hallucinations, speaking in a voice provided by Lee regular John Turturro. But it's the secondary madness on which the film means to focus, and does, to frequently striking effect.


Reworking the original screenplay by Victor Colicchio and actor Michael Imperioli, Lee presents the Sam violence, real as it is, as the catalyst for simmering drives waiting to erupt in a community whose collective fear causes its members to turn on one another. Superficially, the danger brings the community together as the neighborhood guys, who take their orders from Ben Gazzara's padrone, start carrying baseball bats and moving into the vigilante mode in the name of protecting their neighborhood. The posturing shores up their macho insecurities. But far from preventing trouble, it only brings trouble, especially given the pervasive fear of change threatening the neighborhood guys as they feel their tight little lives beginning to be pulled apart by social forces they can't stop, among them the impending cultural warfare between disco and punk.


Lee's in-your-face style is the perfect delivery system for the tensions - and hormones - eroding the communal bonds. As fear quickly turns to anger, Lee unfurls a tapestry of an anxious, amped-up New York that's crackling with vibrancy, including such non-Sam-connected setbacks as a blackout and looting, and is peopled by real icons of the period, such as columnist Jimmy Breslin (who carried on a public correspondence with the killer) and even Reggie Jackson.


But while his rendering of the Italian-American neighborhood is supercharged, he's on rather less secure ground when it comes to factoring in the too-obvious story arcs in the script. Co-writer Imperioli figured prominently in a little-seen but starkly affecting film called "Sweet Nothing" about a young husband who couldn't get past a crack addiction and lost a terrific young wife played by Mira Sorvino. In slightly different form, that story resurfaces here, once more with Sorvino as the most sympathetic character in the film, again playing a hurt and confused young wife, Dionna, trying to figure out what she's doing so wrong that her hairdresser husband, Vinny should be sleeping around and snorting coke. As played by John Leguizamo in the ensemble's most dynamic performance, he's as much a victim of the Madonna-Whore complex as his drug addiction. Nor do the breakout impulses of his lifelong buddy, Adrien Brody's Ritchie, push Vinny toward maturity.


Vinny's reversion to infantile rage and helplessness is comparable to Sam's random killings, which obviously is what Lee had in mind. Brody plays Ritchie with no condescension to the degree of silliness he takes on when he adopts a spiked hairdo and a bad Cockney accent in an effort to proclaim his new punked-out liberation from the neighborhood narrowness.


He's not made a shining hero. He also works as a dancer in a gay strip joint and isn't above earning extra money by having sex with this or that patron. Not occupying the moral high ground in fact adds a measure of ease and comfort to his relationship with Jennifer Esposito's restless Ruby, whose sexual explorations predictably have caused her to be stigmatized as a whore in the neighborhood by young men oblivious to their double standard. Across the board, the acting sizzles. The characters are behaviorally complex when they aren't being asked to subordinate themselves to larger purposes. The interplay is dynamic. But the same can't be said for the course of action into which the story pushes them.


Still, even if you don't quite buy the denouement, and I didn't, and even if there are times when this or that line of dialogue makes you wish the writers had demanded of themselves a stereotype-purging rewrite, "Summer of Sam" is nevertheless a richly evocative, often electrifying film that never gets too sociological for Lee, who takes on an entertainingly sardonic approach to the media's tabloid ways and the schism expressed in the split between punk and disco. "Summer of Sam" may not succeed in its grander ambitions, but it's one of the few summer films that has any, and it covers the rest of its turf in firecracker style.

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