A Watergate-era time capsule of hippie fashions, tape-recorded phone conversations, and systemic institutional corruption, Serpico (1973) ought to look pretty dated. Instead, Sidney Lumet’s biopic of Frank Serpico, the virtuous cop who exposed a network of graft in the NYPD, feels depressingly relevant. The venal denials and cover-ups of the mayor and his police commissioner inevitably call to mind the recent success of Pentagon and White House employees in hanging young soldiers out to dry. As the eponymous detective, honest to a fault, Al Pacino has never been better—except maybe in Dog Day Afternoon, his second outing with Lumet, two years later. The tantrum count unusually low, he gives a nuanced physical performance. A sensitive pig, he doesn’t fit in with the fuzz or his artsy, downtown friends, and to signal the character’s hurt and weariness, Pacino uses his enormous puppy eyes with vastly more psychology than in the Godfather series. Typical of Lumet’s New York, Serpico is gritty yet literal. The handheld chase scenes appear unedited, and a hesitant leap across the narrow space between two buildings surely represents one of film’s most realistic and boring action sequences.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 27, 2004