The true story about an honest New York cop who blew the whistle on rampant corruption in the force only to have his comrades turn against him.
Year 1, Day 331
BEFORE: What a big day it is today. Not only is it Memorial Day but it is also the day I finally catch up and get back on track with a film per day for the movie marathon. After falling a whopping two weeks behind, today’s last double-feature will make those day and movie numbers you see above even again. With the first Al Pacino movie since The Panic in Needle Park way back in November, Serpico is first up today.
AFTER: Crime films are so interesting because it really accomplishes part of the magic of filmmaking: showing the viewer something they have never seen before. Many people have probably seen another crime film or two before and are familiar with mob families, the structure and life of people in organized crime. But the reason Serpico is so great is it takes this same approach at showing you what this life is like from the inside, but this time from a police officer’s perspective. Instead of focusing on the criminals, Serpico takes you behind the scenes of corrupt New York City cops in the 1960s and 70s.
What really got me hooked was a fantastic opening that sets everything up effortlessly. The first scene you see Frank Serpico (Al Pacino), wounded by gunfire, being rushed to a hospital for treatment. From this brief and very simple open, you know just enough about Serpico so you can jump into this world but you are also left with questions you want answered. We know that Serpico is a police officer, he works undercover, and seems to have enemies in the police force. We wonder why he was shot, why might people not like him, and what events led up to this moment. The path the film takes from here is also well constructed and laid out. Serpico is instantly identified as an honest cop who doesn’t want any part in the corruption (read: money) that’s taking place; he just wants to do his job. Then we see the constant struggle of him fighting for what’s right, the difficulty and setbacks he goes through to try and do what’s right. It’s a great underdog story and one of good vs. evil. Even better is knowing that this is all based off true events. Frank Serpico did exist and fought for ending corruption in the NYPD. Also suiting is how it ends; I won’t spoil how it ends (whether good, bad, or a mix of both), but I can say it was suiting and realistic.
Besides a wonderful and intriguing story, the acting and the visuals are equally as important here. Led by Pacino, the entire cast feels like they are real police officers. They all act like stereotypical macho men and heavily influenced by the temptation of money and all it can bring. Except for Pacino that is, who is just as great as an officer as he is at being a criminal (see: Scarface, The Godfather, or a plethora of other crime films). He has that underdog quality, someone we want to root for, because he so wants to do what is right but is fought every step of the way. There are times where Serpico loses his temper and explodes in bursts of anger and we just watch, cheering him on similarly upset and frustrated by what is going on. Visually, all of this is accompanied by wonderful cinematography that places us right in the middle of things. It’s not all shaky-cam, chaotic close-up stuff we see nowadays (think: Bourne films especially), but it has the same feel. The cameras provide that same documentary, up close and personal aesthetic by carefully framed shots and movements.
Serpico is a film that I haven’t seen many like before. Most times with crime films you see the criminals point of view and the police are just there to get in the way. Here we see the reverse; what’s it like to be a police officer. And the danger or problem isn’t from the criminals, but from within - corruption that prevents honest, hard-working people from doing their jobs. This is a great and entertaining film all around, one that I’d recommend watching wether you like the crime genre, biographical stories, or more generally an underdog or good vs. bad drama. Whatever your fancy, Serpico delivers; there’s even a few laughs to be found.
RATING: 5 out of 5