Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 10 min.
Release Date: December 5th, 1973 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sidney Lumet Actors: Al Pacino, Cornelia Sharpe, Barbara eda-Young, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Biff McGuire, Tony Roberts, Hank Garrett, Damien Leake
ell ’em we’re bringing in a wounded cop.” Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) has been shot, which immediately prompts the question as to whether or not a fellow policeman is the culprit; after all, numerous coworkers in his precinct have previously stated they’d like to pull the trigger. Clearly, Serpico isn’t particularly respected among his New York colleagues.
As Serpico lies barely conscience in the hospital, flashbacks chronicle his graduation and acceptance into the New York Police Department, where he begins as a patrolman. While his veteran partner wants to nap in the car and enjoy free meals from local delis, Serpico is itching for action, anxious to respond to a reported rape even though it’s on the borderline of their sector. Although they nab one of the attackers, Frank isn’t as prepared for the ensuing interrogation, which includes plenty of inappropriate – yet customary – physical assault. And shortly thereafter, he discovers that continuing the investigation is no one’s priority, while even taking credit for an eventual collar isn’t so easy, as red tape gets in the way of accomplishments. “That’s not my kind of fun.”
The picture proceeds to follow Serpico as he pursues a multi-year path to becoming a detective. The common link in his journey is, expectedly, corruption, as the surrounding authority figures seem routinely disinterested in justice, instead content with quotas, shady kickbacks, and doing the minimum amount of paperwork – all while remaining concerned only with the internal image of the department. Plus, there’s the issue of politics, which finds the unusually rugged officer struggling to rise up the ranks as fast as better-connected associates – many of whom are far less thorough and moral, which contrasts with the subplots of Frank’s personal life, including a romance with aspiring actress Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe), followed by neighbor Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young).
“Who can trust a cop who don’t take money?” On his quest to find a division to work for that isn’t on the take, Serpico’s tale traverses the city and scrutinizes the seedy underbelly of police operations, specifically entailing widespread graft. It takes its time to build the lead character, even though it’s obvious from the start that he’s designed to be the one untouchable cop amid a sea of dishonesty, which seems almost unnecessary; repetitious events only reinforce the notion. No matter which precinct he transfers to, the situation is the same: shakedowns of local crooks are absolutely pervasive and bribery is ubiquitous.
Based on the book by Peter Maas (with assistance from the real Serpico), with a screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, this picture is one of the earlier of director Sidney Lumet’s topical and timeless works of the ’70s, followed by “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network”; he decidedly enjoys productions with a message about society and its fundamental institutions. It’s not nearly as gripping as the later two, but it tackles comparably weighty themes, exploring the uphill battle of underdogs fighting for what they believe in, even when utterly alone. “It’s uniquely unique.”
Though Pacino delivers an iconic performance, the pacing here is largely off, as it builds, mostly suspense-free, to an ending that is already known – thanks to the opening moments. It’s also exhaustive in the process, incorporating enough details that its biographical account covers episodes somewhat unrelated to the overarching probe of rampant extortion, especially when Serpico’s career twists and turns based on his frequent transfers and his ostracization within the department. In the end, it’s a potent, educational story, but not tight enough or shocking enough to entertain beyond its striking main character.
– Mike Massie