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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Serpico

Starring: Al Pacino, Tony Roberts
Director: Sidney Lumet
Rated: R
RunTime: 130 Minutes
Release Date: January 1973
Genres: Classic, Action, Drama

*Also starring: John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Biff McGuire, Barbara Eda-Young, Cornelia Sharpe, James Tolkan, Lewis J. Stadlen, M. Emmet Walsh, F. Murray Abraham

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

In one of my previous reviews I mentioned SERPICO as one of the most important films of the 1970s. Perhaps it was an overstatement, because that film means very little to people who didn't actually live or were too young to remember that particular time period. But in its time anything involving the real life story of New York police detective Frank Serpico was a big news. In 1972 that story first became a best-seller book by Peter Maas and, one year later, found its way to the silver screen under the direction of respected film- maker Sidney Lumet. The success of the movie was such that the producer, Dino de Laurentiis, even created short-lived television series starring David Birney few years later. Of course, the main reason why people still remember Serpico after more than a quarter of a century is Sidney Lumet's film.

The plot begins with the shooting of Frank Serpico (played by Al Pacino), New York undercover policeman. Serpico, while being treated in hospital, starts remembering his police career. He started as young, idealistic policeman whose nonconformist views often clashed with conservative views of his colleagues and superiors. In the turbulent decade of 1960s, his reputation of black sheep is enhanced with his image, totally different from the regular cops - he grows long hair and beard, wears hip clothes and takes interest in exotic arts and philosophies. To his conservative superiors he claims that this is the best way to work undercover in rapidly changing society. But the outside appearance isn't the only thing that bugs his colleagues. Serpico is man of principles and he not only refuses to take bribe, like almost any other plain clothes policemen do, but he also wants to put the end to such widespread corruption. Mostly ignored by the top police brass, he does things that are strictly forbidden by unwritten laws of New York police - he blows whistle to outside agencies and media and later testifies against his colleagues. The word gets out and Serpico becomes marked man among all New York policemen, who are all more than willing to set him up during his life threatening undercover assignments.

Sidney Lumet made a lot of different films in his long career, but they often share a common themes or settings. Lumet seems to have certain fondness for New York and its burning social problems, as well as rampant moral ambiguity, most often associated with police and political corruption. SERPICO is one of such films, and it was made in a especially favourable time. Early 1970s were the era of Pentagon Papers and Watergate, when America as a society stopped taking the established perceptions of itself for granted. In such times, when everything was questioned, there was a hunger for people ready to expose the darker side of American dream. Frank Serpico was one of such perfect heroes - he didn't just expose police and establishment corruption, he as a personality with his hip image was antithesis of everything associated with conformist, pre-1960s America. And Serpico's life story - his quixotic struggle against establishment, personal courage and martyrdom, made him not just a perfect hero of the public, but also a perfect protagonist for socially important movie like those Lumet used to make in 1970s.

The name most often associated with SERPICO, of course, isn't his director Lumet. The icon of this film is Serpico's alter ego in the form of Al Pacino, young Italian American actor who was just beginning his rise towards Hollywood acting pantheon after his brilliant debut in GODFATHER. Pacino here worked very hard in order to make a role very different from the one he had in Coppola's masterpiece. And he succeeded, at least in making the screen personality of Serpico authentic, if we are to believe real Frank Serpico, who was very pleased with the portrayal of his character. Pacino plays Serpico as an idealistic, low-key but stubborn character, who is hero, but never superman - he has his doubts, he gets angry and depressed, and often drowns himself in self-pity, making the life very miserable for everyone around him. Pacino's performance was so strong, that he had managed to overshadow almost every actor around him; on the other hand, it wasn't that hard, since the script by Oswald Salto and Norman Wexler left place for only minor roles, often filled by good, but this time hardly noticeable character actors.

Direction by Lumet is superb, with the splendid use gray and dark scenery of New York locations; they serve as perfect illustration for this serious and often depressing story. Sadness is also underlined with the touching musical score by Mikis Theodorakis, with the Mediterranean motives that illustrate Serpico's humanity and noble ideals. The script by Oswald Salto and Norman Wexler, on the other hand, is the weakest part of the film. Serpico's background is mentioned in the beginning, than mostly ignored through the film. Time given to the depiction of Serpico's private life is too long and it often gets in the way of his real story (especially when he has to deal with many, often hardly recognisable or established characters).

However, despite all that, SERPICO is one very brave, socially critical film that asks important questions. Unfortunately, time that had allowed such films is behind us. These days, Hollywood wouldn't touch such depressing and non-commercial subjects with ten-foot-pole and Serpicos of our time could see their screen incarnations only in television and cable movies. Which is sad, but, in the same time guarantees good reputation of SERPICO for future generations of film-lovers.

Copyright 1999 Dragan Antulov

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