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Overall Rating

Awesome: 33.33%
Worth A Look52.38%
Average: 9.52%
Pretty Bad: 4.76%
Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 15 user ratings

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by MP Bartley

"Hey Malone - here's an apple for you!"
4 stars

In 1997s nasty black comedy, 'Twin Town', Dougray Scott plays a corrupt policeman who works for the local heavy. When he is called upon one night to provide a service for him, Scott protests that he's just about to watch Serpico instead. The irony is clear - a corrupt cop about to watch a film about one honest cop. Because Serpico is the kind of character that Sean Connery would have called upon when forming the Untouchables.

In an opening that Reservoir Dogs is seemingly indebted to, we see a man in the back of a car being rushed to hospital having been just shot in the face. This man is Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) and when he's put under armed guard, it becomes clear that he's also very important. We then flash back a few years to see his passing out parade. Whilst the other rookies listen to the commanding officer dutifully or with undisguised boredom, Serpico is the only one listening intently. This intensity carries over to his job, where he remains strangely antisocial, instead obsessively throwing himself into the rules and regulations that being a police officer entails. He doesn't seem to fit in and is clearly uncomfortable with being able to get free breakfasts, and is especially uncomfortable with taking money that the police are skimming off from illegal gambling. He's prepared to turn a blind eye to it, but when it's apparent that some of the money is coming directly from mob bosses specifically as a payment, he can remain blind and silent no longer. As he tries to tell the truth of what is going on, he is frustrated by the reluctance of his superiors to also blow the whistle, and threatened by his police officers who make it clear that his honesty will not go unchecked.

The situation of a whistle blower is one Pacino would repeat in The Insider, but here he's on the opposite side of the fence, as the man being cajoled into speaking out. It's a film that could only have been made in the 1970s, as it's a grimy, drab world that Sidney Lumet resolutely refuses to glamourise or add colour to. Everyone dresses unflatteringly, looks podgy and the whole film just feels cold. Lumet delights in poking his camera into the dusty goings-on in scruffy offices and grubby sidestreets. As The Insider, would repeat, this is not a film that labours under the pretext it's a thriller. Instead, it's a tightly wound character study of a man under intense pressure, and Lumet makes no apologies for diving into the minutiae of Serpico's job and life, no matter how inconsequential it seems. The result of this however, is that we are also drawn slowly into Serpico's life, meaning that as the tension of his situation draws around him, we too feel the noose of his actions gradually fastening around his neck. Throughout the film Serpico is a character always being surpressed by something. Lumet constantly frames Pacino as being surrounded by other characters, narrow streets, rows and rows of filing cabinets, an apartment that seems too small for him, furniture strewn around the police station...all helping to capture a fraught and paranoid atmosphere that Serpico is constricted in.

Truth be told, the story of a man wanting to blow the whistle on his jobs corrupt practices is not a new one, not even back in 1973, and the story needs more meat on its bones. Serpico overstays its welcome by about 20 minutes, feeling like a film far longer than it actually is. It's not helped that, Pacino aside, the cast tend to blur into one faceless mess. Serpico seems to have 6 or 7 different superiors throughout the film, all indistinguishable from each other, and likewise his fellow officers. He even gets through two different girlfriends in the film, yet neither fulfill a purpose the other couldn't, raising the question why couldn't they be composited into one?

But the majority of the film does rest on a brilliant Pacino performance, which goes a long way to explaining its success. This is not the handsome Pacino of The Godfather or the wild Pacino of Dog Day Afternoon. Instead, he's a frail, vulnerable, almost geeky man who can't help doing the right thing. Not because of some noble cause, but because he's almost afraid of doing the wrong thing (although the fact that his fellow officers nearly let a cop killer go does seem to enrage him even more). Serpico is a strange, cold fish and Pacino plays him full of nuance. In his days off he's clearly popular with the kids on the streets, loves animals and dances like a complete nerd at a party without caring one bit. Yet at work, he's mumbling and unreadable, keen to show off his ballet skills but surprised when this leads to accusations of homosexuality. He's both naive and resourceful and Pacino keeps Serpico in check right until the end, when we finally get a glimpse that behind those ever darting eyes is a man fearful for his life and getting frazzled by the paranoid thoughts whirling through his mind (in a blackly comic scene, Serpico goes to buy a gun that holds 14 rounds. "What's a matter, is an army coming to get you?" asks the puzzled store owner. "No, just a division" deadpans Serpico").

If the film remains unclear just as to why Serpico would risk everything to blow the whistle, then it's an enthralling character study all the same. Serpico the man shows that sometimes the truth is worth standing for, but Serpico the film shows something else - that films about good cops can be just as good as films about bad cops.

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originally posted: 02/08/07 22:05:53
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User Comments

8/25/20 morris campbell not bad but over rated 3 stars
3/27/20 Carl Bruun Pacino is sublime as honest cop in corrupt NYC. 4 stars
5/25/08 ladavies I think it is Pacino's best performance. Very realistic. 5 stars
11/30/07 Quigley Interesting character study, but it's far too slow. See it just for Pacino alone. 4 stars
2/17/07 G Sherfy Pacino's in fine mode in this one. 4 stars
9/13/06 Indrid Cold Repetitive and too long, but sure, Al is great. 4 stars
12/31/05 tatum Cast too big, Pacino's good, but does make its point too often 4 stars
3/20/03 Jack Sommersby Interesting topic shoddily developed. Should have been shorter and more focused. 2 stars
11/17/02 The Man One of top 5 Pacino performances. Serpico is a real hero. 5 stars
9/26/02 Morally Sound Briliant! 5 stars
8/29/01 Michael Flynn Al Pacino's finest hour, besides "Scent of a Woman." 5 stars
7/15/01 e well done, better than my college class on the subject 5 stars
6/14/01 Law Firm of Dewey, Cheatam & Howe Al didn't start making lousy movies till WAAAAY after this 5 stars
3/17/01 R.W. Welch Real story, very realistically done, with bravura performance by Pacino. 5 stars
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  02-Oct-1973 (R)



Directed by
  Sidney Lumet

Written by
  Waldo Salt
  Norman Wexler

  Al Pacino
  John Randolph
  Tony Roberts
  Jack Kehoe
  Biff McGuire
  Barbara Eda-Young

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