Review: Serpico

Serpico tells the true story of Frank Serpico, a lone American police man who personally confronts the rampant corruption in the force.

Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) is a greenhorn police officer recently joined the force, with an optimistic view on how the officers behave. He is a good man who finds himself surrounded by nothing but dirty cops; men who turn a blind eye and accept bribes left, right and centre. But when he confronts them, or at least rejects payments, they turn on him… and the corruption reaches far further than he could imagine.

Back when the Hollywood system focused on gritty, real drama pieces, Serpico is just that; a thriller centered around Pacino’s character and his gradual turn from regular Joe officer to a man on an impossible crusade surrounded by enemies. Serpico is something of an eccentric; he doesn’t often fit in with his peers even from the start, he wears his hair long and grows a moustache and beard, as far removed from the typical appearance of an officer. This lands him in undercover work, yet every partner he is given is taking bribes and money on the side. After going through multiple partners, Serpico quickly develops a desire to “work alone”, which has the entire division start to question his loyalty.

It is a sorry story. A man who has no reason to seek confrontation, a man who only wants to stand by the rules taught to him and to be an officer. Yet he finds the very officers he once respected are all corrupt, and those very officers slander him as being corrupt… or worse.
The film hits hard straight off the bat, we see Serpico perhaps fatally injured. Even without what this review has just told you, you get critical information immediately: this is a cop who’s been shot, the department barely reacts, and there is question as to whether a cop shot him. Immediately you want to know how this might have happened.

The film is a slow boil though. We watch as a kind man is driven nearly mad by the unfairness around him. Al Pacino is superb in the role. He delivers the hot hatred that comes from betrayal extremely well, while at the same time he can be respectful and honest at every other beat. You really miss this sort of work from Pacino.

The film is a simple story that ramps up and up and up. It was filmed in 1973 by director Sidney Lumet (who also directed the classic 1957 film 12 Angry Men) one argument could be that Serpico has dated a fair bit. The clothing and hairstyles are very “of the time”, although it is a biographical piece so it is forgivable, and the film itself looks old.

Really the best aspects of the film are Pacino’s turn as Serpico and the eye opening reality of the story. You do root for him and feel intensely sorry for what people are saying about him. There’s nothing worse than being convicted of something you didn’t do by someone trying to cover their own indecencies.

A good film that Pacino owns, as well as a stirring biopic, despite maybe looking a little dog-eared and tired in light of the myriad of newer films that tackle the same themes.


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