Serpico (1973)

My ignorance is showing again. All my points of references for Serpico come from movies and TV shows that have done parodies of it, so I honestly had no idea the movie was actually based on a real person and real events. To say the least, it was a bit jarring revelation. I had assumed this was going to be some kind of a slightly funky period  appropriate alternative cop movie, kinda like a mix of Shaft and um… I dunno, Bullit, but instead what I got was a compelling dramatic biopic about one man’s fight against NYPD corruption. But it did not hinder the experience one bit, quite the opposite despite going in with completely wrong expectations and set of mind. The story itself is entirely well executed and it never tries to be cute or preachy about its subject matter, it only attempts to do a very honest depiction of corruption and how institutionalized it needs to be in order to flourish and manages to perform that task very admirably. I probably should track down a copy of the book that the movie is adapted from and see how faithful the movie was, I wonder if it’s still kept in print or has the movie become so popular due to the iconic status it has that the book is largely forgotten now.

The movie itself is very much a one man Pacino show and it’s quite riveting to watch. The fact that it’s entirely based on the real Frank Serpico just makes it better, because you empathize more strongly to Serpico’s plight when you know somebody actually had to undergo all these struggles and ultimately triumphed. There’s so much passion and frustration going through every fiber of Pacino’s in body during the more desperate scenes when Serpico struggles to do the right thing and nobody wants to listen. it’s almost magical at times how real  and naked it feels.  He’s practically exploding on the big screen with raw energy and emotion. No wonder his career was skyrocketing so quickly during this period. First The Godfather, then this, and not soon after, Dog Day Afternoon. If you could only go back time and see it happen for yourself how Pacino was dominating the screen in those days… Anyway, full disclosure, what really compelled me to like the movie was the period it was depicting. The retro aesthetics of the 60s and 70s and the fashion especially gives the movie a very cool vibe and make it very iconic and Serpico’s increasingly unique fashion sense clinches the deal for me.

About the way the movie starts in medias res, I’m conflicted. On one hand, it works well to show where it will all eventually lead and works as a very real and gripping opening, when Serpico is bleeding from a gun shot wound and is being rushed to the hospital. Another side of me however feels it’s a bit, not  lazy, but safe way to frame and encompass the life story of Serpico. While it’s well done, I can’t help to wonder what if they had structured the movie differently and done it more unconventionally. But that’s largely just the arrogant artist in me trying to dictate things for the sake of being a contrarian because the opening is so familiar and widely used technique.


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