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USA 1999
Directed by
Spike Lee
136 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Summer Of Sam

Ostensibly an account of the real-life New York serial killer David Berkowitz, a.k.a. 'Son of Sam', Spike Lee's film is rather a visually and verbally abrasive portrait of late '70s New York City in crisis, a kind of  Do The Right Thing (1989) meets Cruising (1980).

Made under the umbrella of Touchstone Pictures, Summer of Sam is a significant departure from Lee's familiar territory in that he has moved out of Brooklyn's black neighbourhood and into the Italian-dominated North-east Bronx, hitherto an area filmically owned by Martin Scorsese, a director who at timesLee seems to be channelling here with a film that has an almost entirely non-black cast and eschews the director's usual subject matter of intimately-told black people's stories.

The protracted plot (Lee was a co-writer) rambles through the lives of a group of characters, the main two of which are Vinny (John Leguizamo) and Dionna (Mira Sorvino) as New York swelters in a heatwave and the Son of Sam strikes fear into the hearts of its Bronx denizens, here represented by a gaggle of Vinny's witless friends the main one played amusingly by Adrien Brody as Ritchie, a self-styled English punk-worshipper and sometime rent-boy. It's hard to tell if Brody's portrayal is intentionally half-baked or Lee simply has no idea about punk but as Lee casts himself as a wink-to-the-camera, Afro-sporting news reporter I assume the former.  

Lee is always wont to embellish his films with striking visual flourishes - sweeping crane shots, carefully-composed tableaux, characters who float free of their backgrounds and so on.  In this respect Son Of Sam is his most exuberant, indeed excessive, film. There's an abundance of sexual activity (Lee cut it to get a less restrictive rating) and the graphic treatment of the killings recalls that used by the director in his 1995 film, Clockers.

Lee's love of detailed historical recreations has already been seen to great effect in Malcolm X (1992) and from the point of view of production and costume design the standards here are also very high, the director leaving no holds barred in representing NYC of the late '70s as a modern Sodom (AIDS would soon put an end to that).

Whilst his earlier films with their intimate scale were much more appealing, with Son of Sam he demonstrates his ability to bring off an ambitiously large scale production with panache. The only problem is that at the end of the day it all amounts to very little 




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