Sticks and stones may break his bones (a frequent occurrence in Bensonhurst), but these words and other unsolicited criticism from just about everyone he encounters won't break Spike's self-confidence. Spike is a ham- and-eggs club boxer, admired throughout Brooklyn for the grace and conviction with which he can take a dive and throw a fight in the round appointed by Cacetti and his henchmen. Getting a fix on life is another matter.
His attempt is the substance of Paul Morrissey's withering black comedy, Spike of Bensonhurst. The movie walks the same neighborhood as Moonstruck, but its estimation of honor and honesty in contemporary American life is strictly out of Prizzi's Honor; its motto could come from John Huston's caustic look at the Cosa Nostra, in which a capo gives this warmhearted praise for hit-woman Kathleen Turner: "She's an American. She saw a chance to make a buck, and she took it."
Spike (Sasha Mitchell) sees a chance both in and out of the ring. If he can win the patronage of Baldo (Ernest Borgnine), he can progress as a boxer and make a buck as a numbers runner. If he can win the hand of Angel, despite the valid and vehement objections Baldo has raised, he's set for life.
But Spike is one of those guys who can knife himself in the back without any assistance from the guys in the shiny suits down at the Garibaldi Social Club. He starts skimming Cacetti's money on his rounds and is soon banished
from Bensonhurst for stealing money from thieves and inflicting his randy attentions on Angel and eventually impregnating her.
Will Spike be allowed back into the good graces of the Cacettis or will he spend his life in the Puerto Rican slum of Red Hook with Bandana, a fellow boxer, and his bizarre family?
That's the question that sustains Morrissey's film, a piquant piece in which the great American melting pot becomes a delicious stew of sly jabs at the assumptions we claim to live by. In a way, it's the comic version of The Godfather, wresting many laughs from the difference between what is legal and what is actually just.
When in need, the people of Bensonhurst turn to Cacetti. The streets are clean, safe and drug-free in the don's domain. The downtrodden people of Red
Hook are overrun with crack dealers and wish the Mafia would run their neighborhood, too.
Although Mitchell's loony variation on the kind of blue-collar jockularity defined by Sylvester Stallone in his Rocky Balboa outings is always diverting,
Borgnine - true to the part he's playing - steals Spike of Bensonhurst. He makes the name of the neighborhood sound like a crane ("Bensonhoist"), and his performance is full of dizzy puns on the screen's more macabre mobsters.
Borgnine is the son of Italian immigrants, and although he was actually reared in Connecticut, you would swear he had never been out of Brooklyn in his life.
Morrissey, who has spent a good deal of his career making films with Andy Warhol and who was last heard from with the extraordinary Beethoven's Nephew, might seem an improbable source for such a cutting comedy of street manners and machismo. But he has the full measure of these offbeat characters. Everyone - in and out of the arena - wants to punch this Spike and, contrary to Baldo Cacetti's opinion, he does indeed have a future with moviegoers who will discover that you can find sophisticated, urbane humor on the humblest urban street corner.
SPIKE OF BENSONHURST * * * *
Produced by David Weisman and Nelson Lyon; directed and written by Paul Morrissey; photography by Steven Fierberg; music by Coati Mundi; distributed by FilmDallas Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 mins.
Spike Fumo - Sasha Mitchell
Baldo Cacetti - Ernest Borgnine
Angel - Maria Pitillo
Bandana - Rick Aviles
Helen Fumo - Geraldine Smith
Parent's guide: R (sex,profanity, violence)
Showing at: area theaters.