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NewCityNet Killer Rush

Spike Lee's incendiary Italian-American adrenaline rush.

By Ray Pride

JULY 5, 1999:  Spike Lee likes to mix it up.

Money, fame, family, final cut: he's got all that, yet he's still out there, convincing Disney to pay for him make a movie about male sexual anxiety under the guise of a period epic, a violent moral tale about the fear serial killer David Berkowitz brought to New Yorkers in the steamy summer of 1977. "Summer of Sam" is tough stuff, putting a sharp shiv to macho. It's tabloid urgent, blood-visceral, sex-mad. Working from a screenplay brought to him by actors Michael Imperioli and Victor Colicchio, Lee takes a leap into the deep end of another ethnic pool: a roiling microcosm of messed-up young Italian Americans in the Bronx. The story's more about the friendships of several friends from the Country Club section of the Bronx than it is about Berkowitz' madness. As Time's Richard Corliss put it in his reductive, splenetic dismissal, "It's mainly abut whether a Bronx hairdresser would rat on his best friend if he didn't get fellated by his wife."

It's an unfair call against an ambitious story about the ripples within everyday lives that echo and resound behind headlines. It's people's history, done up with Sam Fuller velocity, instead of cop history or politico history that Jimmy Breslin describes, bookending the film, as taking place in the city "that I both hate and love." And what form does that street-level people's history take? The nasty. Sex. Lots of it. (There are more couplings in "Summer of Sam" than any recent studio picture that I can think of.) Very little of it is satisfying, and when there is a warm carnal frisson, Lee often returns to Berkowitz' Yonkers sty, where his rages grow increasingly sweaty and pathetic. (Berkowitz's obsession with the black dog next door named "Harvey" leads to a skin-crawlingly intense hallucination.)

Chief among the neighborhood no-goods is Vinny, John Leguizamo's memorably shifty little cock-of-the-walk hairdresser, convinced all is right with Madonna-wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino) while he cheats on the side with as many women as he can. Dionna's needs don't enter his mind. It would be a sin to do those things with his wife, he says. That's why he needs it on the side. Of course, he's explaining this to old friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody), a returnee from the East Village punk scene who hooks up with the neighborhood bad girl, secretly earning quick cash dancing in a male strip club and taking a little action on the side. Eventually his friends suspect him of being too strange.

Could he be the .44 killer?

But fear. Fear of the other, fear of your friends, fear of change, fear of what you or your friends are capable of: that's the true stuff of "Summer of Sam." There's a scene where Dionna asks an old girlfriend of Vinny's what it was like for them. It's hard to believe how good a job Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito and Lee do with a line like this: "You want me to tell you how to fuck your husband?" (Sorvino's sorrowful nod is priceless.)

Cinematographer Ellen Kuras' look for the film mimics 1977-era New York pictures, like Michael Chapman's infernal metropolis in "Taxi Driver." Killings are scored to Abba's "Fernando," to Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell in Love,"' to a Yankee championship baseball game on a car radio. The contrasts are unending - blunt and gaudy and harsh. There's a general suede-colored overcast to scenes as if the story itself were stewing in the heat wave. Graininess is as common as shadows, as if fear lurked in one and killers in the other. Supersaturated greens and reds creep into scenes throughout. It's almost as dense, frantic and oppressive as Gaspar Noe's notorious "I Stand Alone" (opening later this month). If you take the pulp conflicts of the script at face value, "Summer of Sam" is the most vibrant thing Lee's done since "Do The Right Thing." While there are marvelous moments in recent movies like "He Got Game," the mania here seems unified. Even if the writing doesn't always hold water, the acting and visual style tell the story in ways that words sometimes cannot.

In other words? A vibrant, conflicted movie ripe with the joy of making pictures and finding fresh ways to look at the streets of New York. And even when the roles are undernourished, the casting is sweet. Bebe Neuwirth is all brass as a hair salon owner; Ben Gazarra is weary and wry as the neighborhood Don; Patti LuPone is earthy as Ritchie's just-remarried mom, and even Lee's turn as a disliked, dislikable television news reporter has a refreshing edge to it. "Summer of Sam" is a draft of acrid air out of a blast furnace, but I like it.


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