So, I might as well be straight. No intro I could ever come up will be on par with Serpico’s. A shrill wail of a police siren scores the sterile credits and plays through our first glimpses of a bloodied and bearded Al Pacino. Emergency radio chatter names the man as Frank Serpico, who is currently severely injured from a gunshot wound. His journey to the hospital and peoples aghast reactions are intercut with conflicting footage of a fresh faced and clean cut Frank Serpico at the beginning of his career. We do not know who this man is, but we know he is a big deal.
We begin to follow a younger Serpico in his early days as a police officer in New York. He is understandable naïve, but immediately passionate for his job. His intensive strivings to maintain his morality, that eventually defines him, are instrumental in establishing him as a rogue amongst his colleagues. The way his dissatisfaction at the new world he is entering is portrayed is one of the films many strengths. Seemingly insignificant scenes of his rejection of free food later return with severity so intense that even Serpico would have seen the triviality in his previous actions.
His rogue like divergences later enters his police work when acting alone and against order to arrest two criminals associated with a rape, even speaking with genuine compassion to another who he expects to be mostly innocent. His awareness at his growing difference from the other officers leads him in another direction, and he begins to seek the rank of detective. From this point on, his slow transformation into the wildly different character from the opening shot begins. He works as a plains clothes undercover policeman and ceases trying to be the cop that he thought he wanted to be, his uniform is gone and his appearance only gets more manic from then. The facial hair slowly forms, and every outfit makes a better Halloween costume than the last. Personal favourites include him being casually dressed as a rabbi with nor context or further explanations as to why this was.
With his intense individualism and morality being the cornerstones of his character, his unavoidable clash with his colleagues comes when he is handed an envelope containing $300. He returns the money and continues to refuse any money that is given to him, regardless of whether it is intended as a bribe or not. His fellow officers are now open about their suspicions and distrust of him, and despite opting to be an individual he now has no back up options. He must fall in line or diverge even further. There is no hesitation when he chooses the last and sets out to expose all corruption within the New York Police Department, attempting to approach the police commissioner and outsider journalist to achieve his newly set goal.
In spite of the severe actions his love of the job is still clear. A fantastic monologue shows that he still holds police work with some form of romance and it is suggested that his desire to purge the corrupted department comes from desires to make his romanticised image match reality.
A lot of expectation comes with an Al Pacino film and this film is one of his best. At first glance it has all the makings of a stellar, but standard, Al Pacino performance. Early scenes of him speaking Italian and scenery chewing in his faux madness, but while the role definitely needs the crazy that Pacino does best the slow building angst he gives the character is one of the films strongest bullet points. The shift from his confident swagger to a nervous wreck is tragic, even more so when realising that it is caused by him doing the right thing. Our glimpses into his private life initially show an uncharacteristically relaxed Serpico. But as the pressure ramps up this too is corrupted, until all he has left is his seemly unachievable goal of cleaning the un-cleanable.
The film creates a gritty and altogether unpleasant portrayal of New York, its criminals, and its boys in blues. Its colours remain strictly urban; even Serpico’s fashionistic flamboyance remains muted and colourless. This downtrodden aesthetic is betrayed by the films score. Which at times verges on perplexes in select moments. Young Serpico’s visit to a shoe shop is accompanied by romantic schmaltzy music that would not be out of place in a 1950s melodramatic love story. Other free form jazz inspired moment are dated as all hell, but strangely sync up well with Serpico’s stress induced mania.
Not even the puzzling music can subtract from the film main strengths: Frank Serpico’s transformation from calm and by the book cop to a morally just unpredictable cop is the films core. Corruption by righteousness instead of criminality is an interesting take on the almost Shakespearian character downfall story. It is an intense downward spiral that leads its hero to a higher plain.