Movie Review: Summer of Sam

Summer of Sam (1999)

GENRE: Crime, Drama


WRITER: Spike Lee

STARS: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Badalucco


PLOT: Spike Lee’s take on the “Son of Sam” murders in New York City during the summer of 1977. Centring on the residents of an Italian South Bronx community who live in fear and distrust of one another.

Based around the New York heatwave of ’77 and real life murders committed around that time, Summer of Sam focuses not on the killer (or indeed his crimes), but on the lives of a fictional group of young Italian-Americans in the South Bronx.

Vinny is a married hairdresser, perpetual adulterer a small time gang member who struggles with all of the relationships around him (friends, partners, family, the mob etc). Ritchie had left the neighbourhood unexpectedly, so when he returns sporting spiky hair, punk clothes and a fake British accent his is not exactly welcomed back into the fold with open arms.

It is a time of heightened paranoia that results in the local NYPD even recruiting the help of a local mobster in tracking down the notorious serial killer known as ‘The .44 Calibre Killer’ or ‘Son of Sam’. So when he gathers his crew and has them think of who the potential killer may be, Ritchie as well as a local priest and a number of others make it on to a list that is based more on intolerance and misunderstanding than any real investigation.

9a4889232fa2b0b0defe5007cd071675As the film progresses we see Vinny’s life slide downwards, whilst Ritchie starts to find happiness and it is the relationship s of and between these two characters that remain the central theme of the film. We do get small serial-killer-by-numbers glimpses of the real Son of Sam, but these do nothing for the movie as they feel too obvious. Lee would have been much better advised to avoid references to the real Son of Sam and allow the audience to get caught up in the paranoia and create some is he/isn’t he tensions.

Whilst Summer of Sam is an interesting tale that is well written and filmed, it does feel a little like a failed experiment. A film that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Is it a traditional period piece about Italian-American communities? a crime drama? a deep look at disaffection and self worth? The former is the only part of the film that works fully as Leguizamo and Sorvino give convincing performances to go with the excellent cinematography that makes you feel like the film may well have been made in the 70s and not the end of the century. It is a shame that the film’s schizophrenia detracts from what is a very good premise from a skilled writer/director.

One dubious claim to fame that Summer of Sam held on its release is that with 3.04 ‘fucks’ per minute, it contained the most profanities of any film every released. In the following 15 years only three films have managed to beat Sam in those stakes. One of which is a documentary about the work fuck and another is a film called Swearnet.

SUMMER OF SAM, from left: John Leguizamo, Michael Rispoli, Al Palagonia, Ken Garito, 1999, © Buena Vista

SUMMER OF SAM, from left: John Leguizamo, Michael Rispoli, Al Palagonia, Ken Garito, 1999, © Buena Vista



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