Fifty years after its initial release this movie is still very much relevant and important. Based on true events, expertly directed and acted, it’s a masterpiece you simply need to watch. Serpico is a gritty and realistic thriller about an honest cop trying to fight the corruption in his precinct. That story goes just as you think it’s going to go. And the fact that all of this really happened just makes the whole thing feel even more impactful. For the longest time, I refused to watch these classic movies from the seventies. I thought they were outdated and not nearly as entertaining as modern releases. However, once I started watching them, I was immediately hooked on them.
Just take the opening scene of this movie. While the credits are rolling, you start hearing these sirens. Sirens that are getting louder and louder, telling you that something is horribly wrong. And then we find our main character, Frank Serpico, played by young Al Pacino, bleeding out in the back of a police car. Just as he’s arriving at the hospital, the phones start ringing and people start rushing to the hospital. After this impactful intro, we go back in time to find out how he ended up on that operating table. We see a clean-shaven young man with integrity. We see a man who wants to make a difference. He’s soon going to learn how things actually work.
I could go on and describe to you just how each of these scenes hit me but I won’t. I don’t want to bore the shit out of you for starters. And I want you to experience them for yourself. It’s truly extraordinary how things haven’t changed during all this time. I’m not talking about just the police but the entire governing structure. I don’t think we should get rid of them as this won’t solve anything. And almost all attempts to change the problematic police culture have failed. What we need to change is our entire society and move away from the tribal system of values. This would solve not just policing but a slew of other issues.
Serpico is a movie offering a compelling story that’s perfectly paced and presented. Of course, Al Pacino gave one hell of a performance. And he had to since he’s in every fucking scene. What a career arc he had in the seventies, after starring in The Godfather, he appears in this movie and then tops it all off with Dog Day Afternoon. Al spent a lot of time with the real Frank Serpico, talking to him and getting all the details right. When he asked him why did he do it, Serpico said: “Well, Al, I don’t know. I guess I would have to say it would be because if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”
When it comes to the visual quality, it’s simply sublime. Restored, remastered, and rethefuckup, Serpico looks like it came out in the nineties and not the seventies. I’ll just say that the trailer you can play below is for the 4K version of the movie and leave it at that. Sidney Lumet’s no-bullshit approach to direction created a masterpiece that’s going to grip you from the first minute. I think he felt a lot of responsibility towards the real Serpico and this is why the movie is not melodramatic or preachy. It shows events, people, and structures in their true light. And while this might feel a bit depressing at times, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You can also look at Serpico as a character study. And since our main man is actually an outcast, you might even identify with him on a variety of different levels. I know I did. Finally, if you’re looking for movies like Serpico you can check out Cruising, also starring Al Pacino. Once again he’s an undercover cop, this time looking for a serial killer prowling the New York streets. The television miniseries We Own This City is also a good choice. Based on true events, it shows the way modern police corruption works. And if you want the real stuff, there’s only one documentary that will suffice: The Seven Five.
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writers: Peter Maas, Waldo Salt, Norman Wexler
Cast: Al Pacino, Jack Kehoe, John Randolph, Cornelia Sharpe, Cornelia Sharpe, Biff McGuire
Fun Facts: NYPD cooperated with the production in a very open and sincere manner which surprised and pleased the director Sidney Lumet.