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Serpico (May 10/03)

It's interesting to note that Serpico marked Al Pacino's fifth film role, and he was already a phenomenal talent. The film requires Pacino to appear in virtually every scene, and the character of Frank Serpico goes from green cadet to jaded veteran - a transition that's made seamless by Pacino's astounding performance.

As the movie opens, Frank Serpico (Pacino) has just been shot; lying on a gurney in a hospital, he begins to reflect on his past. We see Serpico from the very beginning of his police career, walking the beat and becoming acquainted with the system. He soon discovers, though, that he's essentially expected to accept bribes from a variety of sources - something he has no intention of doing. But as time passes and his fellow cops begin to become suspicious of him (due to his ongoing refusal to take money), Serpico comes to the realization that he's got to take a proactive stance against the rampant corruption amongst his fellow officers.

Though there are a few exciting action sequences, the majority of the film follows Serpico's attempts to expose the plethora of dirty cops in his midst. And while that is interesting up to a point, the movie spends far too much time dwelling on small details that are simply not that interesting. Director Sidney Lumet (working from a script by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler) goes to great pains to show the voluminous red tape encountered by Serpico, but goes a touch overboard. After the third or fourth encounter with a smarmy departmental lawyer, we get the idea: the police force is a tough nut to crack. Still, in taking his time with the material, Lumet effectively establishes a real sense of time and place - by the time the end credits begin to roll, we've got a fairly good idea of what being a cop in '70s New York was all about.

But none of that matters much, since Pacino delivers a performance that would be entertaining in a genuinely terrible movie. Though he has to go from clean-shaven rookie to bearded and grizzled plainclothesman, Pacino is absolutely convincing from the word go. To say his presence is electrifying is an understatement; Pacino owns the screen, and indeed, keeps the audience hooked even through the film's occasional lulls. Among the supporting cast, nobody really makes much of an impact - though former Woody Allen regular Tony Roberts is quite good as Serpico's closest ally.

The gritty cop drama appears to be making something of a comeback, what with the success of Joe Carnahan's Narc. But it's films like Serpico and The French Connection that made the genre what it is, and there's absolutely no denying the impact they've had on popular culture.

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