Summer of Sam (1999) – Review

3 1/2 Stars

Summer of Sam is a near masterpiece from director Spike Lee. It’s a harrowing film to experience and I use that term because this is a movie that evokes a palpable feeling of dread and anger. The storytelling masterstrokes by Lee are virtually flawless, but the focusing on John Leguizamo’s unlikable character is a bit frustrating. He’s the least interesting person on-screen and yet we are forced to spend the majority of the films running time with this creep. That’s no fault to Leguizamo who plays the character just as it’s written, it’s more a knock on the somewhat too ambitious screenplay by Sopranos‘ mainstay Michael Imperioli.

The blistering and turbulent summer of 1977 is the setting for this fictionalized account of the Sam murders and the fallout it takes on a group of an Italian-Americans residing in The Bronx. While the murders by madman David Berkowitz and the terror he invoked amongst the city’s population are touched upon, the narrative’s focal point is on two young men from the neighborhood: Vinny (John Leguizamo), whose marriage (to Mira Sorvino) is in danger because of his rampant infidelity, and Ritchie (Adrien Brody), Vinny’s childhood buddy who is engulfed in the punk music movement. As the summer progresses the murders begin to increase and the serial killer taunts the media with alarming notes that detail Berkowitz’s devious intentions. The NYPD is under pressure to solve the case while dealing with an unprecedented heatwave and a city-wide blackout.

Like most of Lee’s work Summer of Sam runs on for a bit too long. While the film ranks high in his filmography it does have its share of sloppy elements. However, the filmmaker manages to keep all these messy threads from unraveling and brings the movie home in an effective climatic final act. The focus on Italians was a media story point during the time of the film’s release. Today, that’s a non-story, but it is an interesting experience to see Spike Lee channel one of his mentors, Martin Scorsese, and deliver a film that stands up with other masterworks about living in New York City during the 1970s.

Director: Spike Lee
Stars: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino

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