“If I get angry enough, I’ll live,” Frank Serpico, the NYPD undercover cop and outspoken opponent of police corruption, said to himself as he lay dying after a botched 1971 drug deal bust-up. Made legendary by Al Pacino’s portrayal in Sidney Lumet’s 1973 film, Serpico, he still believes his near-fatal shooting was set up by bribe-taking superiors and colleagues who openly despised him. But Antonino D’Ambrosio’s new documentary, Frank Serpico, though sprawling and seething, isn’t a hagiography. It probes instead into Serpico’s personal agonies. Beyond his trauma from the incident, the years he spent treated as a civic superman proved just as lonely as his days on the force — he was never quite regarded as human. Serpico now lives in near-seclusion in upstate New York, but though he’s gaunt, hoarse, and haunted, he’s still incensed by injustice and prone to sudden bursts of righteous anger, and he cuts a striking figure onscreen.
D’Ambrosio has an ingenious approach to re-enactments, an often cringe-inducing documentary tactic. (In the most wrenching scene, Serpico restages his own takedown, at the exact scene of the crime.) There are missteps — Brendan Canty’s slick, grungy score keeps taking us out of the gritty 1970s time period, and D’Ambrosio resorts too often to bombastic slo-mo. But these are leavened by D’Ambrosio’s comical reminders that even Serpico’s admirers considered him a bit of a pain. Lumet kicked Serpico off set for yelling “Cut!” at a sequence he didn’t approve of. And Serpico’s old partner scolds him — in the midst of an otherwise teary-eyed reunion — for his sometimes reckless piety.
Most hilarious is the revelation that the first director assigned to the film Lumet eventually made, the manic John G. Avildsen, wanted the eccentric, bearded hipster ex-cop to play himself. On the basis of this exceptional portrait, he very well could have.
Directed by Antonino D’Ambrosio
Opens November 1, IFC Center