1973 - R - 129 Mins.
|Director: Sidney Lumet
|Producer: Martin Bregman
|Written By: Waldo Salt
|Starring: Al Pacino, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Biff McGuire, Tony Roberts
|Review by: John Ulmer
"Serpico," is just not a terribly exciting motion picture. Granted, it is based on the true story of an incorruptible Italian-American cop named Frank Serpico who brought down an entire police precinct that was "in on the take." But true stories don't always translate into good storytelling. That's the primary reason Hollywood always spices stories up by inserting scenes that never occurred in real life and altering the facts.
Beardface: The prequel to Scarface...
"Serpico" could have used a bit of altering. It's just not interesting enough to sustain its material for two and a half hours. Perhaps a ninety-minute movie would have done it justice, but its running time is far too long for such a film. But even then I could probably say it's a well-made film. Too bad it feels so sloppy and cheap.
Let me briefly rephrase that in a nutshell: It's not a bad movie. It just could have been a lot better.
Sidney Lumet should be ashamed. He should have fired the editor the first day on the job. Here we have many different scenes spliced together, in apparently random order, and an unbearably dingy audio track that *plays during (and over) conversations!* Music is essential to all film, but it has to be used correctly. You can't just play a soundtrack throughout an entire motion picture.
But Lumet doesn't even do that. He plays it in the worst spots he possibly could. It's as if he went through the entire movie, marked down each scene where there shouldn't be music in the background, then applied it. Even if you're going to burden the audience with music and dialogue blending together at the same time, at least make it *good* music!
Many scenes seem pointless and badly executed. Pacino is a standout but the rest of the film is a failure. The acting (save Pacino) is stiff and the dialogue is corny (save Serpico's, but even his gets cheesy sometimes). It's as if everything were scripted by an author and just fed to the actors. Oh, wait, that's exactly what happened. My bad.
Did all these people who claim this is the best police corruption film ever made witness the same mediocre blend of poor technicalities and acting and music that I did? Did they not see the horrendous nature of the random interactions being spliced together with separate ones? Did they not notice that every time a crucial character moment came around this really, really bad music started to play over the actors'?
Take "The Godfather" as a comparison. Released a year prior, there were many quiet scenes in "The Godfather" where Al Pacino's Michael Corleone would be speaking to someone with a hushed tone. Then we'd get Henry Mancini's terrific Italian score subtly fade into the background. *But!* Notice how the quiet, slow nature of the music is an effective portrayal of the characters' emotions. Notice how it's soft and deliberate in its course so that our inner consciousness picks it up and shoves it into the equation along with the scene.
That's how music is supposed to work. Note to directors: Never, ever play cheap, electronic, happy, loud music during sequences where characters are talking quietly to each other in private. Don't betray the characters. It may sound crazy to judge a film on its music, but all films rely on music for effect. Without music all films would be empty. It's all to do with the subconscious--try viewing some old dailies from familiar motion pictures prior to the music being inserted. Notice the blankness and ineffective feelings the scenes provide to us. Now watch it again with the soundtrack. See what I mean? (A good example for doing this would be on a film such as "Psycho"--watch it without the music, if possible, and notice how awful it is.)
The plot is pointless because I've already delved into it--a downtown police precinct is corrupt and they can't stand Serpico's morality. So they decide to plot against him and try to murder him. They fail. First we get Serpico being led away in a car. ("He's been shot by a cop!") Bloodstained and in a daze, we see Al Pacino's bearded portrayal of Serpico drifting in and out of consciousness.
Then we get the non-introduced flashbacks to the beginning.
But Lumet presents Serpico as a caricature, playing by all the rules and fitting snugly into a giant cliché. Al Pacino rises above these clichés, of course, with his hard-edged performance. But imagine how much more powerful it could have been if the director and scriptwriter had liberated him and set him free. Maybe we'd get a performance to equal that in "Scarface." But alas, Pacino is simply overburdened with juggling these clichés and only manages to make the character somewhat realistic. Even then he goes through the same routines that all the clean characters go through. (Even Sly made it more realistic in "Cop Land.")
I saw a documentary once about the real Frank Serpico and what he did after the film was released. He turned into a hermit. He still looks the same, with his beard and all, but it'd be interesting to watch the film with him and have him point out all the things he actually did and said as opposed to what's in the movie. I'm not saying Serpico was corrupt. I'm sure everything is true. I'm sure he was a very nice and moralistic man.
But there's a difference between being a moralistic man and a naive idiot like Serpico in the movie. Pacino makes him smarter than he appears on paper but read some of his lines to yourself and notice the sheer stupidity of it all.
"Cop Land" did all this much better more than twenty years later. That one co-starred Robert De Niro. This one stars Al Pacino as the title character. Both are great actors. I wonder what De Niro could have done with this role? Perhaps he would have played Serpico more subdued--something Pacino isn't always able to pull off. (Only here and in "The Godfather," but even here he soon turns into a yelling hooligan. I'm not saying I dislike Pacino. He's tremendously great! But he fails to make the character consistent--not that it matters, he's still a giant cliché.)
Pacino's performance is a knockout one, which is why "Serpico" gets a fair rating in my book and a weak recommendation. But it takes its time getting places, too many scenes are out of place, the music is more often distracting than not and the rest of the cast are insufferable. They could easily have brought down Pacino but he's too strong for that. He's a fighter, just like Serpico, which may explain why he took on the role. Too bad Lumet had to interfere with his performance. Too bad the music had to interfere with the dialogue. Too bad Lumet and the music had to be there at all. Just imagine what Scorsese could have done with this, and how liberating he could have made the character and his interactions. Here we just have a stone caricature of a real man, and it isn't too terribly impressive.