New York cop Frank Serpico fights a one-man war against the corruption thriving within the New York Police Department. The battle against corruption isolates Serpico from his fellow officers and puts his life under threat, as he must now fear the bullets of criminals and cops.
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Al Pacino is one of those rare Hollywood leading men that have created more than one cult icon in their career. Along with Michael Corleone and Tony Montana there’s another face that dominates the bedroom wall of young men… Serpico. Like Che Guevara, Serpico is synonymous with being a man fighting against the establishment – perfect cult icon material! Also like Che Guevara, some were even not entirely aware of what Serpico was fighting for or had even seen the movie. Yet on the strength of Pacino’s image and sheer presence, young men wanted to identify with him regardless. Pacino actually changes Serpico’s image frequently throughout the movie but it’s the image of Serpico in hippy-style clothing with that bushy beard and wispy hair that cemented Serpico’s cult icon status.
Sidney Lumet’s direction is characteristically non-showy throughout, retaining that gritty cop thriller realism that worked so well for films like: The French Connection (1971) and Dirty Harry (1971). But whereas films like these opted for leading men with towering presence (Clint Eastwood) and rock hard gravitas (Gene Hackman), Lumet opted for the diminutive, less conventional cop with Pacino. Pacino had proved himself to be believable as the Mafia boss sat behind a desk pulling strings with an iron fist in The Godfather (1972). But as the street-level law enforcer Frank Serpico, Pacino was treading new ground. This time he wasn’t playing the guy at the top of the criminal food chain, rather the foot soldier on the ground floor that’s trying to fight the guys pulling the strings at the top.
Very soon Frank is offered his first slice of the pay-off. Naturally he refuses the money and this alienates him further from his colleagues. Taking as given is not something he’s keen to do and Serpico is a name that becomes famous among those who are grateful for this extra “bonus”. In Serpico there are very few cops that seem to be sympathetic to his cause. While he makes a few buddies like Bob (Tony Roberts) he always seems to get let down in his campaign and is forced to transfer out of his department. But with his performance Pacino shows us that it’s more than this.
Although Serpico’s intentions are very honorable, it’s his personality that also seems to do him no favors. Pacino plays Serpico with quite a number of dimensions to make him more real. His honesty is without exception but at times he comes across as arrogant, sarcastic and ever so slightly self righteous. Pacino enters his new department holding a white mouse and when asked about it his response is in a very sarcastic tone: “Oh you heard about it?” Pacino shows us an honest cop who has a taste for being unconventional. Perhaps he’s an outsider by choice? Perhaps he just wants to stand out for the sake of defiance? Pacino lets us judge for ourselves.
So while we appreciate this uncompromising attitude of Serpico we can also see him going out of his way to isolate himself from others. We don’t want him to get hurt but we feel that he might if he doesn’t watch himself. This is reflected in the way Pacino handles Serpico’s relationship with women. As his quest intensifies his personal relationships deteriorate, he becomes short tempered: “When I come home, I want to come home to a clean house.” And really starts to be only concerned with his own affairs. As the film progresses Pacino portrays a man increasingly isolated from the people around him.
Serpico’s cult status has in some way perhaps transcended the film’s subject. Like with The Crow (1994) people celebrate the image of Brandon Lee in popular culture separately from the film itself. Serpico is similar in this regard, perhaps it’s Pacino that’s celebrated before the idea of fighting corruption in establishment? Would the same film be as much of a cult favorite with another actor playing the same part? It’s often said that films live and die on their casting… Serpico lives because of Pacino!