Leave it to Paul Morrissey, fresh from the heretical “Beethoven’s Nephew,” to take the old prize-fighting movie and the Italian-American comedy and turn them upside down and inside out. The humor in his frequently hilarious “Spike of Bensonhurst” (citywide) comes from nonchalant bigotry and unabashed hypocrisy. It’s a daring tactic which Morrissey pulls off with his highly developed sense of caustic, yet good-natured absurdity grounded in--of all things--a profoundly conservative sensibility. In simply being honest about how people behave, Morrissey is able to show us how bizarre we really can be.
His Spike Fumo (Sasha Mitchell) is a tall, rangy good-looking kid who wants to make it as a fighter in Bensonhurst, his solidly middle-class Italian-American Brooklyn neighborhood. But he soon runs afoul of the deceptively avuncular local don, Baldo Cacetti (Ernest Borgnine). Morrissey and his co-writer Alan Bowne are so refreshingly casual about Spike’s ambitions as a boxer that when his big fight finally arrives it’s not really very important. Long before then they’ve sidetracked Spike to Red Hook where, oozing ethnic superiority, he’s determined to rid the derelict Puerto Rico neighborhood of its drug pushers and to teach the street kids how to box.
“Spike of Bensonhurst” is gratifying in its corrosive yet oddly sunny cynicism. When the uninhibited and independent but basically decent Spike criticizes Baldo for dealing in drugs instead of the traditional rackets--prostitution, extortion, city contracts--Cacetti explains that “drugs are easier. There are no laws against them. The politicians we’ve been paying off all those years have made sure of that.”
Then on comes Sylvia Miles (in a splendid cameo) as the local congresswoman, extolling the cause of civil rights in her opposition to drug testing of civil servants--at her grandson’s bar mitzvah yet--and then heading for the ladies’ room to snort some coke.
For all its quirks “Spike of Bensonhurst” represents Morrissey’s first real attempt to reach mainstream audiences. As such, it has to buck the truth that comedies about Italian-Americans and the Mafia are beginning to wear a bit thin. With his outrageous sense of humor Morrissey turns this seeming obstacle to great advantage only to be slowed down by too much plot. The film begins to lose steam after its first hour and becomes dragged-out.
Luckily, there’s as compensation for this drawback--a roster of rousing performances. Newcomer Mitchell is a breezy charmer; Borgnine is fresh and canny in a jewel of a portrayal; Anne DeSalvo is a likeably smart cookie as Baldo’s wife, and Antonia Rey practically walks off with the movie as an exuberant Puerto Rican mother. Best of all, “Spike of Bensonhurst” (rated R for very blunt language) boasts a finish that takes your breath away in its utter lack of sentimentality.