Summer of Sam
directed by Spike Lee
(Buena Vista Pictures, 1999)

In the summer of '76, David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam, began a murderous rampage that ended more than a year later with six dead and seven injured, their only offense that they were caught making out in their cars. New York City police, at a loss for leads, turned to mob bosses for help, and neighbors turned to one another, or, in some cases, against one another.

Summer of Sam is director Spike Lee's look at what happens to one Bronx neighborhood caught in the grip of that fear.

It focuses on two friends in particular: Vinny (John Leguizamo), a womanizing hairdresser who's out to break Wilt Chamberlain's scoring record, though not on the basketball court, and Vinny's best friend, Ritchie (Adrien Brody), a Pete Townshend wannabe who's traded in his New York accent for a Cockney twang.

But neither Vinny nor Ritchie is particularly focused on Sam. Vinny is more concerned about showing off his new wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), at New York's hottest discos, and Ritchie spends most of his time spiking his hair and trying to break into the Bowery's punk palace, CBGB's.

That all changes, however, when the guys from their neighborhood begin to suspect Ritchie, whom they haven't trusted since he went punk. And it's not long before they decide they have enough evidence to bring him to "justice."

That makes Summer of Sam a kind of urban Ox Bow Incident, with one major exception: the lynch mob here includes the lynchee's best friend, a guy who's not entirely innocent himself.

To his credit, Lee devotes much time and effort to developing the characters of both the vigilantes and their victim. Better yet, he etches a portrait of New York as a racially and musically divided city, where the ongoing tension turns small slights into major offenses worthy of massive reprisals.

To his discredit, however, Lee gets so caught up in the personal lives of Vinny and Ritchie that Summer of Sam goes for long stretches without Sam: and if the critical plot element -- the betrayal -- had been delayed any longer, it would be running under the closing credits.

Worse yet, Lee casts himself in the role of John Jeffries, a TV reporter attempting to get the "dark perspective" on the Son of Sam story. As a reporter, Lee is entirely unconvincing; as a disruptive element in his own film, however, he succeeds beyond anyone's wildest expectations.

The result is a film that's effective for long stretches, only to be interrupted by scenes of blatant moralizing or disco-driven sex, neither of which advances the storyline, though one is markedly more entertaining than the other.

Since he broke through with films like She's Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing, Lee has made a number of incomplete successes -- Jungle Fever, Get on the Bus -- films in which he latched onto a good idea only to let it slip away. Happily, Summer of Sam is one of those successes. Sadly, it doesn't so much slip away as get pummeled to death by its own director.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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