At first, I wasn’t sure if I should make this a Classically Shitty post. Serpico is more of a stupid movie than a shitty one. They had a lot of good pieces (actors, director, true story, etc.), but couldn’t execute them in any logical fashion. Everything that happens, happens in the dumbest possible way. It’s more Classically Stupid than anything else. But then I thought, “You know what? Fuck it.” Serpico is just as Classically Shitty as everything else in this series.
The movie opens with a rip-roaring, high-octane car chase around the streets of New York City where — oh, wait, sorry, I’m thinking of some other movie. Serpico opens with the titular police officer (played by Al Pacino) being casually taken to a hospital after having been shot in the face. People learn of his wounding, and react in the most apathetic manner imaginable. “Huh? What’s that? Serpico was shot? Oh, okay. Hey, did you see the Yankees game last night?” After that, the rest of the movie is told through an extended flashback.
Frank “Paco” Serpico is an honest cop with a great nickname. Serpico is also a really a weird dude. For the first half of the movie he is working in some kind of fingerprint catalog system, and he talks in this weird, kind of nasal, kind of high-pitched voice. He literally prances around the police department like a ballerina. He spends time in the bathroom with other dudes with the lights off. When people accuse him of being gay (even though the film shows us he isn’t), he doesn’t bother to deny it. Eventually, all his hard work talking weird, dancing, and cavorting in bathrooms pays off, and he gets promoted to a new division as a “plainclothes” officer.
The new division doesn’t seem to have any purpose other than collecting payoffs from criminals. In fact, the very first thing that happens when he walks in the door is somebody tries to hand him some payoff money. Damn. Where can I apply for that job? Anyway, they go from place to place getting handouts in exchange for looking the other way on crimes. We never learn what they are actually supposed to be doing. The crimes they are ignoring? Never mentioned. Why bother? After all, it’s a lot cooler to just imagine there is an entire NYPD division devoted to collecting bribes.
It doesn’t take long for Serpico’s buddies in the Payoffs Division to get suspicious of him. He’s the only cop that won’t take bribes, and they all get super paranoid he’s going to rat them out. So what do they do? Try even harder to get him to take the dirty money. They do all kinds of smart things like pair him up with a different dirty cop, hold on to his share of the bribes until he changes his mind, offer to give his bribe money to charity, and even give him a series of empty verbal threats. Great solutions, guys! It’s nice to know the mean streets of New York were being protected by the best and brightest the city had to offer.
Scene after scene shows nothing but him refusing to go along with the crooked cops. It gets beaten into the audience’s head with the subtlety of sledgehammer. We get it, he’s a good cop, can we move on now? Eventually, Serpico’s had enough and he decides he’s going to take down all these dirty cops. The problem is, the high-ranking police officers are in on it, too. The mayor’s office won’t even help him out since there is too much bureaucracy and red tape to make it worth their time. So, Serpico does the only thing he knows how to do. Dress up in outrageous costumes and completely lose his shit.
And the costumes certainly are creative. He dresses up as a rabbi, a bum, Gandalf the Grey, and some kind of weird butcher/construction worker hybrid. He seamlessly blends into the crowds with his ingenious camouflage techniques. Nobody even notices that he’s still the same short asshole with long hair and a gigantic beard. But most of the time, Serpico dresses like a goddamn hippy with weird-ass leather vests, gigantic wide-brimmed hats, and spaghetti-Western-style ponchos. As a “plainclothes” police officer, you can see him coming a mile away.
Serpico apparently also has psychic abilities. He arrests some people for “crimes” that are never shown. Sure, he spends a lot of time spying on them in his butcher/construction worker outfit, but we don’t ever see them commit any crimes. Nevertheless, his ESP tells him they have committed crimes, and he is able to use that alone to arrest them. The justice system accepts this without question. Fortunately, one of the guys he arrests happens to be a cop-killer and someone who is paying off the police. A double whammy! Great job, Serpico!
The second half of the movie, with him using his newfound psychic powers and dressing like a goon, is also where Al Pacino stops acting like Serpico and starts acting like Al Pacino. Unlike his quasi-gay, restrained performance of the first half, the second half shows him SCREAMING ALL HIS LINES LIKE AL PACINO DOES IN PRETTY MUCH EVERY MOVIE HE’S BEEN IN SINCE 1992! Yep, Serpico has finally, totally lost his mind, and runs around like a maniac yelling at everybody: cops, his girlfriend, and his buddy the Will Ferrell Clone. I’m glad they got Pacino to play himself during these scenes, because playing himself really encapsulates the madness that the real life Serpico must have been going through at the time.
Serpico becomes a holier-than-thou dickwad hypocrite at this point in the movie, too. In one of the movie’s early scenes, he arrests his first criminal, and becomes disgusted when a detective beats the shit out of the bad guy in order to get a confession. Serpico decides to become a beacon for all that is good and right in the world from that point on. Until, of course, he goes batshit crazy. After that, he does whatever it takes to expose the bad guys, including beating the shit out of a suspect he arrested.
After a seemingly endless onslaught of retarded scenes, the dirty cops decide to take out Serpico. He gets transferred to the Narcotics Division. At this point it is well known by fucking everyone that he is trying to take down dirty cops. So, in his first minute on Narcotics, what happens? One of the dirty cops tells him exactly how much bribery money they get every month. JESUS FUCK GUYS WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!
Eventually, they get called in to a drug bust, which is a set-up to kill Serpico. He gets shot in the face, and his new partners lethargically come to his aid. He gets sent to the hospital with all the urgency of a Sunday drive. Fortunately, he survives the ordeal, leaks everything he knows to a newspaper, the Mayor is then forced to investigate the crooked cops, and everyone lives happily ever after.
I’m not sure what else I can say about Serpico. I’m sure the real life person went through a harrowing ordeal, and the world is better for his actions. But the movie-version is an idiotic portrayal of dumbass cops being investigated by an insane hippy. Serpico has a weird cast, too, it’s a virtual who’s-who of “That guy” and “Some dude” and “I remember him from that thing.” A lot of interesting character actors who never quite made it to stardom.
Overall, Serpico is a really stupid movie, and stupidity has to count for something. The best thing about this movie are two parodies that came from it. First, the middle school play adaptation in the movie Rushmore. Second, Charlie becoming Serpico in an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He plays a crazy, screaming Al Pacino better than Al Pacino himself.
Charlie: (shouting in the police station) Who wants a piece of Serpico? ‘Cause I’ll give it to you! I’ll give a piece because you’re forgetting about (points to the American flag) this! And you’re forgetting about (grabs the state flag) … whatever the hell that is! But you’re forgettin’ about it! (holds up cassette) And I’m gonna take this right to the mayor! And you’re gonna remember! (kicks open the door and leaves)
Police Clerk: We really gotta do something about these homeless people.
Check out these other entries in the Classically Shitty series: