chavel’s review published on Letterboxd:
Al Pacino begins as a jovial, instinctive police officer as the eponymous Serpico, a real life NYC cop between 1960-1972 with detective badge ambition. Frank Serpico, who wears justice on his chest like a coat of arms, keeps getting denied promotion because he’s a straight arrow who refuses to take bribe money from street criminals unlike virtually every other cop in the division. His eccentric, happy-go-lucky personality even gets used against him such as when he is wrongly plastered as queer following a misunderstanding in the men’s bathroom. The rap against him comes that he won’t get watch out for his fellow cops’ backs (even though he does), and becomes a pariah within the department as he leans towards testifying to outside government agencies willing to conduct a NYPD investigation against impropriety. Slowly but surely Pacino gets buried under a mountain of facial hair as he turns cagey and disgruntled.
Sidney Lumet’s film itself has quite a large number of isolated gripping scenes and booms of insider’s knowledge on department corruption. But in its smorgasbord of extraneous information it often rapidly skates over certain elements to our dismay, yet in another way is heavily didactic in its second half. You have to pick out the good from the onslaught of exhaustion. Frank had a number of girlfriends in real life, but the film portrays just two of them. The second girlfriend (Barbara Eda-Young) is given a terrific first-meet scene and then is never allowed to develop in a truly human way beyond long-suffering doormat.
Any committed devotee of Lumet / Pacino has to see this eventually anyway, because even in its laboriousness to get through, it remains iconic. Pacino is the original rat in a cage, but he’s a good rat.