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Throughout the summer of 1977, the City of New York suffered from the rampage of a homicidal maniac calling himself the "Son of Sam". Sam's letters to newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, made Breslin a newspaper superstar, so it is historically appropriate that his comments bookend Spike Lee's movie about that particular summer. You can surf up any of a number of Cranky reviews Spike Lee films and two things will be readily apparent. First, Cranky likes Lee's work, in general. Second, Cranky thinks Lee suffers from the "too many fronts" syndrome that usually afflicts indie filmmakers. As writer and producer and director and actor, he loses focus and leaves too much irrelevant material in his films which draws focus from the main, and usually clearly defined story.
In Summer of Sam, Lee's strengths, delivering strong characters in strong stories, is still apparent. His story, of how a Bronx community reacts to the murderous rampage of the Son of Sam, is waylaid by scenes of the killer, David Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) bouncing off the walls in his shoddy Yonkers apartment or screaming at the dog who "inspired" his killing spree. That extra half hour or so of material distracts from the good story stuff happening back in The Bronx. There, two stories run in parallel while the community closes ranks against the .44 calibre killer.
The name star of the show is Vinny (John Leguizamo), a hairdresser of the Warren-Beatty-in-Shampoo mode. Vinny the Stud is married to the very lovely and very much in love Dionna the Good Girl (Mira Sorvino) who does her best to make her man happy. Vinny, as oftentimes seen in other stories set in the Italian American community, suffers from the whore-Madonna complex (where your wife is Madonna - not the singer - and you can only fulfill your sexual needs and fantasies with another woman - like Madonna, the singer, for instance). Vinny and Dionna do the disco scene dressed to the nines but, while Dionna looks the other way, Vinny is boffing almost every other girl in the neighborhood.
Vinny's best boyhood friend is Ritchie (Adrien Brody) who had left the community to live in Manhattan. On his return to The Bronx the "new" Ritchie, with spiked hair and a musical preference for The Who and the Dead Boys, is a virtually unrecognizable punk boy trapped in Travolta-land. How he makes his living, a well guarded secret which I won't reveal, is an affront to the men who hang out on the street during the long hot summer of 77. When they go looking within their community to find the killer, they don't have to look far. By then, Ritchie has paired off with Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) the "popular" girl (see Madonna, above), who likes the punk look and follows Ritchie down the darkened path to the hallowed halls of CBGB in Manhattan's bowery, where his band "Late Term Abortion" occasionally plays. For those of us who remember the old days, the sight of Quiana draped Bronx folk heading for the birthplace of punk is hysterically funny. It leads to other famous nightspots of the 70s, including the notorious Plato's Retreat, where Dionna does her best to salvage her marriage by becoming the type of woman, sexually, that she thinks her husband likes.
When Vinny comes within a hair of being a Victim, while doing his wife's cousin in his car, he tries to change his life. He's doomed, of course. The disintegration of the relationship (and fear of Sam helps it along nicely) is beautifully portrayed by Leguizamo and Sorvino. The stand out performance nod goes to Adrien Brody, whose Ritchie transforms from pseudo-English punk (complete with the fake accent and dog collar) to relatively normal guy. Sure, he has a huge blonde Mohawk, but he's a fairly stable personality in a community that has been whipped into a vigilante frenzy by fear.
The murder sequences in Summer of Sam will stop your breath in your throat. They are bloody. They are shocking, though not nearly as stomach turning as the exploding head effect we've been seeing ever since Scanners.The name-brand supporting cast includes Ben Gazzara as the local mob leader that the cops come to for help; Bebe Neuwirth as Vinny's boss and piece on the side; Patti LuPone as Ritchie's newly-re-wed Mom, and all do fine jobs. The worst part of director Spike Lee's Summer of Sam is the awful and out of place performance by actor Spike Lee as Eyewitness News Reporter John Jeffries. Up against Leguizamo, Sorvino (an Oscar), LuPone (a Tony), Neuwirth (2 Tonys; 2 Emmys), Gazzara and John Savage, Spike Lee's lesser talent glares like warning flare over a crash site.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Summer of Sam, he would have paid...
Midweek rental level. Though he usually waits until the end of his work to tack on music video-type pieces or other addenda, Lee choreographs a sequence to The Who's "Baba O'Reilly" in the middle of the flick that kills all momentum dead. It makes the climax of the film, in which the captured Berkowitz' perp walk while vigilante justice brings the hammer down on one of the boyz up north, all set to "Won't Get Fooled Again," anti-climactic.
Add points if you can name a Dead Boys song, other than "Sonic Reducer". Deduct points if you expect to hear it.
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