Damn dirty cops! It’s gonna take Frank Serpico to clean up this town!!!
Based on a true story of rampant corruption and internal affairs in New York City (where else?), Serpico stands as the consummate cop movie, right up there with The French Connection. But while The French Connection is a standard cops-and-robbers movie, Serpico is pretty much cops-and-cops, as Al Pacino’s title character hunts out corruption inside the department even though it means all but signing his death warrant.
In his crocheted vest, hippie hair, and handlebar mustache, Serpico is the anti-cop. He also refuses to go on the take, which puts him in opposition with the clean-cut yet utterly dirty members of the force. Today, a story about a cop who refuses the constant handouts of "protection money," doesn’t sound very special – it’s aped on network TV every week. Well, Serpico is why they ape it. This movie – and this man – is the original. Mad props, yo.
The problem with Serpico is that all it’s about is police corruption. Serpico’s character is built up fairly well in the beginning, from his girls to his partygoing to his adoption of a puppy. But once the plot gets going, the character slips away. Pacino’s Serpico becomes a single-minded monster, obsessed with rooting out police corruption while his enemies close in around him. It weakens the picture but thankfully it doesn’t ruin it.
After 30 years, Serpico has become part of Americana, the story we think of when we read newspaper headlines about dirty cops on the take. There hasn’t been any better film in this genre (L.A. Confidential, you wish!), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for one.
The new DVD features a couple of short documentaries plus — get this — a photo gallery with commentary by director Sidney Lumet. (He comments mostly on the music for the film, not the specific pictures.)
Review by Christopher Null © 2002 filmcritic.com