Summer of Sam Review

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Trust and loyalty are strained when a New York neighbourhood is tested by a serial killer.


It's too easy to pigeon-hole Spike Lee as a black filmmaker, but this ambitious drama demonstrates that he is beyond a doubt a New York filmmaker. Set during the long, hot summer of '77, this is not another true crime piece chronicling the crimes of a real-life psycho, but a portrait of the spiral of terror and chaos that radiates outwards from the murders of car-bound couples, committed by the self- titled 'Son of Sam'. We glimpse the madman (Badalucco) in his hallucinatory hell, taking orders from a black dog, but the film is mostly concerned with a tangle of Italian-Americans in The Bronx.

As in Do The Right Thing, the plot puts a large number of characters in a pressure cooker and as petty grudges escalate, it seems that the neighbourhood will erupt. Hairdresser Vinny (Leguizamo) has trouble in his marriage to Dionna (Sorvino) because he devotes so much time to infidelity that he can't perform sexually with her. His friend Ritchie (Brody) gets heavily into punk (even adopting a hilarious Johnny Rotten accent) while working as a dancer in a gay club. Vinny is traumatised because he has only just missed becoming a Son of Sam victim himself, and his marital problems nudge him closer to a situation whereby he will betray his friend and precipitate ghastly violence. The cops and the Mob want the killings stopped, but boss Gazzara's decree that his soldiers look out for the maniac only makes things worse.

Like many recent US films, this is hung up on the styles of the 70s, but Lee goes for something between the black exploitation pictures of the period and the neon sizzle of David Lynch at his darkest. There are so many characters and threads that only a few get the full treatment. One scene, however, raises the kind of cheers usually reserved for couples getting together, as Dionna finally dumps Vinny, leaving him drugged-out and afraid.

It seems that Lee is saying that all New Yorkers are potential mass murderers, but the climax of the film is curiously less hard-hitting than it might have been. That said, it has some daring dramatic coups (the talking dog is a jaw-dropper) and enough verve to get through its lengthy running time. In short, an enormously energetic, flavourful film.

An enormously energetic, flavourful film.