Maybe Spike Lee should be hammered for making a movie that glorifies serial killer David Berkowitz, the post-office clerk known as Son of Sam who terrorized the boroughs of New York during the scorching summer of 1977. Maybe Lee deserves the heat he’s taking from the families of the victims — six shot to death and seven others wounded by the .44-caliber killer — for exploiting their tragedy. (Berkowitz — now forty-six, a born-again Christian and serving six consecutive life sentences — says he was demonically possessed and taking commands from his neighbor Sam’s black Labrador retriever.)
Or maybe you should just look at Summer of Sam and realize that the accusations are unfounded. In fact, this tenaciously gripping film is only marginally concerned with Berkowitz, played by Michael Badalucco of The Practice. It’s Lee’s ambition — only partly realized — to show how the killings combined with the heat, blackouts and looting, as well as sexual, racial and cultural tensions, to turn an Italian-American community in the Bronx against itself and all outsiders.
The gifted John Leguizamo heads the cast as Vinny, a hairdresser with a young wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), whose beauty he loves to show off at discos. Dionna is a madonna to Vinny, so he goes to whores for the dirty sex he likes, which leaves Dionna frustrated. Vinny prefers hanging with his gang, especially Ritchie (Adrien Brody), his best friend — until Ritchie turns punk, cuts his hair mohawk-style and takes up with the neighborhood tramp, Ruby (Jennifer Esposito).
Brody is superb in a role once intended for Leonardo DiCaprio. Ritchie’s behavior — he moonlights as a dancer in a gay-porn club — estranges him from Vinny and raises suspicions in the hood that Ritchie might be the Son of Sam. Much nonsense has been written about this film’s marking a first for Lee in moving away from African-Americans, as if intolerance and the victimizing of outsiders isn’t a constant theme of universal relevance. Lee, reworking a script by Michael Imperioli and Victor Colicchio, directs Summer of Sam like a flamethrower, and he keeps it sparking relentlessly. That’s the problem. Though the film is rich in atmosphere — indie cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Swoon) brings the period to vivid life, including the meccas of punk (CBGB) and sex (Plato’s Retreat) — the human stories don’t link up organically to the moral issues at hand. At times, Lee loses his way in the film’s blaring, bombastic intensity. OK, then; Lee doesn’t make perfect films, though Do the Right Thing came damn close a decade ago. What Lee does make are films that provoke audiences instead of coddling them. Sounds like the right thing to me.