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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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NOTE: Summer of Sam is Rated R for lots of sex and a little gore, some of which will be discussed in this review. Read at your own risk.

When it comes to evoking a time and place, nobody is better than Spike Lee. In Do The Right Thing, he created an entire neighborhood and a memorable, palpable couple of days. In Summer of Sam, Lee does it again. Moreover, the interesting racial and ethical gray areas that spangled Do The Right Thing, add texture to this movie.

Summer of Sam is set in the Bronx, New York, in the summer of 1977, one of the hottest summers on record. It was also the summer that the so-called “Son of Sam” serial killer was on the loose. Fear of the serial killer (so the movie says) forever defines that time and place.

Lee is often an impressionist filmmaker. He’ll try to capture a moment in time. Small details, like a “Dead End” sign, or a heat wave, or a serial killer in the headlines really aren’t that important to the plot, but are essential to definition of time and place. And even within the movie, Lee highlights a particular moment with an oddly-chosen image (like when he shows the space between two characters, rather than the characters themselves) or with expressionistic lighting and effects (i.e., effects that reflects the characters’ inner moods, rather than external reality).

So although the Son of Sam killer (now know to be David Berkowitz, played by Michael Badalucco) is in this movie, his role is small. This is not a horror movie about a serial killer. Rather, it is an ensemble drama. The serial killings touch the lives of the characters, but only indirectly as future memories.

The movie’s center is Vinnie (John Leguizamo, proving himself to be a talented actor), a small-time hairdresser. Vinnie is married to Dionna (Mira Sorvino) and the two make a handsome couple.

Their sex life is busy, but troubled. Vinnie likes all kinds of sex, but he believes that he can only have “normal” sex with his wife. She, on the other hand, would like to please him however she can, and so both of them end up unsatisfied and frustrated.

In many movies, dialogue about, and depiction of their sex life would be gratuitous, but in Summer of Sam, it really drives the characters’ words and actions. Without it, we wouldn’t know who the characters are or why their relationship is as troubled as it is.

Vinnie also hangs around with his old buddies from the neighborhood. Joey (Michael Rispoli) and his three pals can almost always be found at the dead end, peddling drugs and discussing the issues of the day. Their machismo makes for some of the movie’s funniest conversations. Everyone has to be the smartest and the loudest, which sometimes makes for a conversation where everyone is talking and nobody is listening. It’s a bit of insightful writing and directing by Lee.

Vinnie’s friend Richie re-emerges into the neighborhood with a Sid Vicious hairdo, a British-flag t-shirt, and an English-punk accent. Once they recognize him, Richie is still allowed to be “one of the guys,” but just barely. Vinnie still likes him because they go way back. Joey’s gang tolerates him because he’s a paying customer.

But his appearances aren’t all that has changed (or should I say emerged?). When Richie needs money, he dances at a gay strip bar, then gets a few extra “tips” back stage. He has a girlfriend, but their relationship is more platonic than she’d like.

So when Joey’s gang finds out about Richie’s homosexuality, (added to his weird behavior & appearance) they decide that he must be the Son of Sam killer. One night they drive over to the punk club where they think he’ll be.

The contrast between the cultures is huge: four Italian street toughs among a club full of pierced, mohawked, leathered punks. Perhaps the epitome of that contrast is the image of Vinnie in his disco best, talking over old times with Richie in his new blond mohawk. The conversation soon becomes an argument, Vinnie accusing Richie of having changed so much and Richie saying he’s just being himself. Both of them are as right and as honest as they’ve been in the whole movie. Yet their perspectives are so different that it seems like they’re just fighting. Neither can see the other’s point of view, which really sums up the tragedy of the whole Jocks-vs.-Goths war.

In a classic enactment of that war, Joey’s gang forms a posse to go take care of Richie, once and for all. They’ve learned he’s at home tonight, and they’re off to make him pay. For a moment, it seems like they know what they’re doing is wrong. They hesitate. Their revenge requires some moral legitimacy, so they decide to make Vinnie come along and be a part of their mob. Vinnie is so messed up from problems with his wife and from alcohol and drugs that he gives in to their pressure.

The dreadful march of the vigilantes is tensely intercut with the triumphant capture of the real Son of Sam killer. The appropriately grave score (from Terrence Blanchard) and well-chosen song (The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again) bring the movie to its grim, yet hopeful close.

Spike Lee is a great director. He is one of the best when it comes to pulling great performances from a large cast, and when it comes to creating a real, palpable impression of a moment. He has made his share of bad movies, but when he’s on his mark, he is very good. Summer of Sam will surely be remembered among the best.