A hard-driving, combustible, collage-like drama about a notorious serial killer’s traumatic effect on New York City 22 summers ago, “Summer of Sam” is never less than absorbing but feels just a bit like yesterday’s news, both narratively and cinematically. As vibrant, assaultive, loud and in-your-face as the city itself, Spike Lee’s long, ambitious picture is rather too forcefully reminiscent of his best film, “Do the Right Thing,” in the way it attempts to stir up both the characters’ and the audience’s simmering rage and anxiety during a sweltering summer exacerbated by adverse incidents. Although violent crime and sex are the two main subjects of the story, pic is neither controversial in content nor particularly graphic, but its grimness will limit B.O. to moderate levels, with women likely to be particularly resistant.
Lee’s first film with a nearly all-white and Latino cast is positioned decisively as a period piece at the outset, as newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin is brought on to explain to contempo viewers that, compared to the modern “safe” New York, the story we’re about to see — one of 8 million in the Naked City — is about “a different time and a different place.” In short order, a hulking figure is seen trudging through the night and shooting two couples in two different cars, marking what are soon revealed to be the killer’s sixth and seventh murders. The killing spree is taking place in the Bronx, and the many, largely Italian, characters are brought onstage with relative dispatch.
Vinny and Dionna (John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino) are stylish young marrieds who work, respectively, in a beauty salon and Dad’s Italian restaurant, but love to show off on the disco floor at night. There’s trouble at home, however, as the highly priapic Vinny philanders compulsively, if guiltily, but is less than studly with his wife, who suspects his infidelities but feels inadequate over not properly inspiring her husband. Ritchie (Adrien Brody) is a neighborhood boy who shocks his buddies by suddenly, and hilariously, materializing as a London-style spike-haired punk, complete with a temporary, and lousy, Cockney accent. Ritchie soon hooks up with a lusty local woman, Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), while his musical/performance-art career takes him in strange parallel directions as both a punk rock musician and an exotic dancer in a seedy gay theater.
Son of Sam, as the murderer has now been dubbed, achieves infamy, and truly arrives as a force of terror in Gotham, when he writes Jimmy Breslin and announces, “I am the monster.” He lives for the hunt, he proclaims, adding that he fully intends to kill again. With this, citizens begin staying indoors, brunettes dye their hair blond and wear wigs because the female victims have all had brown hair, and the cops appeal to local crime boss Luigi (Ben Gazarra) to help find the maniac who’s pulling his neighborhood apart. The media fans public paranoia by keeping the story on page one through a summer of record heat and a championship run by the Yankees that Lee typically documents with loving attention (for good measure, he also throws in an argument about the relative greatness of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, and has two thugs pummel a drunk who foolishly admits that his favorite baseball team is the Boston Red Sox).
Having shown the killer obliquely as a tortured nutcase who lives in a hellhole and slams his head into his bed while barking like a dog, pic finally reveals the killer’s face and identifies him as David Berkowitz in a scene in which he shoots a ferocious black dog that’s been annoying him. He quickly kills again, and tempers soar with the temperature as a blackout occurs and riots ensue. The modern urban nightmare has arrived, and life is no good for anybody.
Ritchie, who’s afraid his double gay/straight life will be discovered, gets a gig at CBGB in the Bowery, but when Vinny and Dionna arrive to attend they’re put off by the body-pierced crowd and proceed instead to Studio 54 and then Plato’s Retreat, where they both indulge in heavy (but remarkably inexplicit) group sex. This experience shatters their tenuous marriage, and one of the film’s most potent scenes has them leveling heated and hateful charges at one another in a shattering argument in their car as the specter of Son of Sam lurks in the shadows.
Tension in the city reaches its peak on July 29, the first anniversary of the initial killing, when the maniac is expected to strike again. Taking matters increasingly into their own hands, the Italians blockade their neighborhood and search everyone coming into it, then develop the spurious theory that Ritchie is actually Son of Sam. Using a startling special effect, Lee has a new black dog speak to the actual murderer and tell him to kill again, whereupon he does, once more, then twice, before being apprehended. When it’s all over, everyone has come through the summer rather the worse for wear.
In “Do the Right Thing,” the characters were elemental to the story’s dynamic and represented then-current social forces in the city, a major reason why the film proved so powerful and relevant. In the similar group portrait undertaken in “Summer of Sam,” the characters seem more arbitrary. All of them are affected by the atmosphere created by the killings, but none is directly connected to it. In other words, Vinny, Dionna, Ritchie, Ruby and the Italians toughs are all circumstantial background players in the larger drama being similarly enacted by others throughout a fearful city.
Significantly, this is not David Berkowitz’s story, nor is it a police procedural about how the killer was finally snared. It’s enough for Lee and his fellow screenwriters Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, who penned the early drafts and initially approached Lee just to exec produce, to simply identify Son of Sam as a deranged madman, and to briefly indicate how a lucky little break led to the solving of the case. The subjects, as they have so often been in Lee’s films, are the ever-present social forces that are brought to the fore when conditions become inflamed, the way the worst — or at least the truth — comes out in people when external conditions force the issues. Pic also examines how the media jumps on things in a way that the public laps up but also whips up widespread misery and panic.
Lee directs with a constant sense of visual invention, although with less in the way of gimmicks and intrusive experimentation than in some recent outings. Partly because of the heavily Italian milieu, and partly because he’s clearly trying to supercharge his scenes to the greatest possible extent, this is the closest Lee has yet come to Scorsese territory. A fair share of his technique here consists of having the characters yell at one another as much as possible, which seems plausible enough on a moment-to-moment basis but has a somewhat numbing effect over the long haul.
Ensemble cast fits together snugly, with nominal leads Leguizamo, Sorvino, Brody and Esposito entirely convincing as working-class types struggling with their lives just as they feel their very existence threatened in an extraordinary manner. Lee appears as a sensationalist TV newscaster who spotlights looting and rampaging during the blackout and interviews blacks about what they think of the all-white crime spree.
The disco-heavy ’70s soundtrack is a major, and entertaining, mood-setting force, although it obscures some dialogue. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras and production designer Therese DePrez, both of whom have very recently moved up from the indie world, have worked to de-emphasize and deglamorize the period feel, which the music and Ruth E. Carter’s costumes evoke.