Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam opens with an extended sequence in which lurid close-ups of the .44-caliber killer’s dirty work are mixed in with hot disco action as Vinny (John Leguizamo) and his wife, Ruby (Mira Sorvino), thump and glide across a dance floor. Lee works up a woozy sense of dread and menace in these moments: The film comes across like the infernal offspring of Weegee and Saturday Night Fever. But most of the time, the movie plays like Do the Right Thing in Scorsese camouflage. It’s about what happens to a community – specifically the Italian-American community in the Bronx – during the ferociously long, hot summer of 1977, when the taunting Son of Sam was on his killing spree. The human landscape on display is rangy, but the script, by Lee with Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, flattens everything out. The Italian buddies go in for a lot of goombah jags. In low-lit restaurants, the local mafiosi preen before their veal cutlets; Vinny the hairdresser philanders and hates himself for it. It’s all been done before, and better.
Ritchie (Adrien Brody), a nice neighborhood boy who’s turned himself into a mohawk-haired male-strip-club dancer and punk musician, is suspected by his former friends of being the killer just because he’s so different. He appears to be having an extended nervous breakdown, but the film props him up as a martyr. While all this is going on, Lee works in the widespread lootings that resulted from the blackout; he even works in the Yankees’ championship run and Plato’s Retreat and lots more giddy gruesome nostalgia. The reach is ambitious, and there’s the germ of a great dramatic idea here: the way a momentous public event seeps into our private lives, our private fantasies. But Lee is pushing a smirky and narrow view of experience. As the heat rises and fears flare, just about everybody reveals his true self, and almost invariably those selves are rotten.