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Friday, April 21, 2000


In the heat of the N.Y. night

Spike Lee is finally back in form for the first time in nearly a decade, with "Summer of Sam," a rambling but incisive look at the New York of 1977. Unlike the rose-tinted childhood nostalgia that made Lee's "Crooklyn" so unbearable, "Summer of Sam" captures '70s New York in all its tweaked-out glory, from the disco glitz of Studio 54 to the safety-pinned punks at CBGBs, from home-run hero Reggie Jackson to serial killer David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz.

Lee drops us into the tense, sweaty ambience of a particularly hot and crazy summer in the Big Apple, when mobs looted the city during the great East Coast Blackout, cocaine and Quaaludes were the recreational drugs of choice (a pharmacological recipe for manic depression), and the mysterious ".44 Caliber Killer," Son of Sam, prowled the boroughs' streets at night.

It's hard to imagine now the fear that Son of Sam inspired in the City, to the extent that mobs of vigilantes roamed the streets, and brunettes donned blonde wigs to avoid attracting the attentions of the killer. But consider this: You had a psycho who was blasting people at random, and sending off long insane missives taunting the police which the New York Post then trumpeted across page one in lurid headlines such as "No one is safe from Son of Sam!"

"Summer of Sam" -- a title that echoes Berkowitz's reign of terror -- is not so much about Son of Sam, as the effect he had on a city that was already hitting fever pitch. Lee's tale follows a group of Italian-American buddies in the Bronx, and the tensions between them that are brought to a boil by the heat and paranoia: Call it "Do the Wrong Thing."

Hanging out on the street under a sign that reads "Dead End," the boys pass the time dealing drugs and bitching about pretty much everyone who isn't them: the "skanks," "fags," "coloreds," "spics" and other "degenerates." The film focuses on Vinnie (John Leguizamo, who's never been better), a philandering hairdresser who's cheating on his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino) and trying to protect his punk friend Richie (Adrien Brody) from getting his butt kicked by the neighborhood no-necks.

While the other goons see Richie as a "fag," Vinnie needs someone a bit more open-minded to talk to about his sexual hangups. And Richie (who turns tricks in a male strip club in order to buy a guitar and follow his punk rock dream) is certainly a qualified confessor.

While the film never loses its central plot line, it finds time to veer off on any number of tangents: Mob boss Ben Gazzara berating the cops' incompetence over pasta; Leguizamo and Sorvino flashing their moves on a disco dance floor; the seedy porno world of Times Square; waterfront drug deals; decadent downtown private parties; and Berkowitz freaking out as his neighbor's dog "talks" to him.

This is entirely appropriate, though, as the film is trying to show to what extent people remain products of their environs. The one person willing to question that is Richie. When asked why he wears a dog collar, he replies, "We're all wearing dog collars. Everybody has two personalities, one you're born with, and one the world gives you" -- and he's crucified for his efforts. The neighborhood goons equate "difference" with "insanity," and come to the conclusion that someone with a mohawk might also be a serial killer. What comes next is a powerful indictment of the lynch mob mentality.

No fan of the Bronx, Lee enjoys sticking the knife in when it comes to small-minded Italian-American views on race, masculinity and, especially, the oh-so-Catholic virgin/whore complex that besets Vinnie, who cheats on his wife constantly in order to indulge his lust for sex beyond the missionary position. Still, no one can accuse these characterizations of not having their roots in reality, especially since the script was penned by Bronx natives Michael Imperioli and Victor Colicchio.

The big issue with this film (there's always an issue with a Spike Lee film) was when the families of Berkowitz's victims condemned the film for wallowing in the killings. Spike denied the charges, and while I doubt he was insincere, his knee-jerk inclusion of this violence is symptomatic of modern American film.

Since "Summer of Sam" is not told from the perspective of the killer, nor do the film's characters witness any of the shootings (except once, after the fact), there is no narrative justification for depicting a half-dozen murders in grisly detail. The only reason is to include some gory spectacle to excite a jaded audience.

Let's not quibble, though. All too often, Spike Lee lets his agenda steer the film, and he's so busy making his socio-political points that the characters have no chance to breathe. Happily not this time, and Leguizamo, Brody and Sorvino all get to turn in excellent, expansive performances, while minor characters like Ben Gazzara's mob boss or John Savage's Vietnam-vet taxi driver evoke the local color perfectly.

"Summer of Sam" is a brilliant snapshot of a mad moment in time, and it delivers its themes of prejudice, personal irresponsibility, and betrayal with a masterful slam-dunk. The film may be too sprawling to be perfect, but it's never less than fascinating.

"Summer of Sam" is playing at Cinema Square Tokyu in Shinjuku.

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