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'Spike of Bensonhurst' : (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 18, 1988

Nobody would ever call Spike a brain. For all the good it does him, his head could be filled with cement.

This kid, played by Sasha Mitchell, thinks he has talented fists, and, ostensibly, his drive to make a name for himself -- any kind of name -- is the comic subject of "Spike of Bensonhurst." But Spike's best move seems to be a dive to the canvas. He's a master at going down for the money, especially since it allows him to keep his nose straight and relations secure with the local mob guys.

Clearly, we're supposed to be wowed by this hunky lunkhead with the viscous Brooklyn accent and the sculpted physique, but what's to like? Mitchell isn't an actor or a star, he's the sort of languorous male model type you see lolling about in underwear ads -- a jockey shorts layout waiting to happen.

Spike's father (Frankie Gio) is serving time for a rap he took for the local don, Baldo Cacetti (Ernest Borgnine), and to show his gratitude, Cacetti pays the bills for the boy's mother and her female lover, both of whom detest Spike and, eventually, toss him out of the house.

But Spike's expulsion doesn't affect him nearly as much as the exile from Bensonhurst forced on him by the don when he discovers that the kid is going out with his daughter, a pouty brat with snowy ringlets named Angel (Maria Pitillo). Forced out of his neighborhood gym, Spike moves in with a Puerto Rican fighter named Bandana (Rick Aviles) in New Jersey, and there he meets India (the stunning Talisa Soto), who becomes pregnant with his baby. Still, he angles for Angel, agreeing to her scheme to get her pregnant and force her father to accept him.

None of these machinations pans out, but there was never any chance they would. This calamitous, charmless boxing comedy was directed by Paul Morrissey, and the tone he seems to have been going for is a sort of intentional tastelessness and excess -- a purposeful awfulness, if you will. This is a shrewd strategy for a filmmaker with abilities as limited as his are. It gives him something that passes for a style and lets him beat the charges of sloppiness and ineptitude before they're launched.

Morrissey does have an esthetic -- though it's a slovenly one. He loves to push scenes until they get messy and spill over, which is manifest here in those where Spike and his mother and his mother's lover bellow obscenities at one another. When he worked with Andy Warhol on movies like "Chelsea Girls," "Trash" and "Heat," this approach had a hip luridness, and though it wasn't any more bearable than it is here, it did provoke a kind of grotesque fascination.

Instead, "Spike" provokes a kind of agitated boredom. Borgnine looks discombobulated, as if he wished he were back on "McHale's Navy." Nevertheless, he's the best thing in the movie.

And if Ernest Borgnine is the best thing in your movie, you're in big trouble.

Spike of Bensonhurst is rated R and contains some pretty rummy language and adult situations.

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