Film Review: Frank Serpico

Catching up with the former detective who risked his life to expose corruption in the New York Police Department.
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The decades haven't mellowed Frank Serpico, the subject of a best-selling book by Peter Maas and the award-winning film by Sidney Lumet. This documentary fills out the years following Serpico's stint as a policeman, his self-imposed exile in Europe and his continued activism.

Serpico himself, still feisty and outspoken, narrates, revisiting his old haunts in Crown Heights and Greenwich Village, pointing out relatives in family photographs, and giving a step-by-step account of the night he was shot in the face and left for dead by fellow cops angry at his refusal to take bribes.

The highly opinionated Serpico was an outsider within the police department, at first for his beard and sandals, later because he testified about corruption before a Bronx grand jury in 1968. When he was then assigned to an undercover narcotics post, he was singled out as a "rat" by his colleagues.

Director Antonino D’Ambrosio, who also wrote and co-produced Frank Serpico, weaves in interviews with Serpico's friends and adversaries. Several cops offer their thoughts, including Arthur Cesare, who was in the hallway the night Serpico was shot. That segment is fascinating, but other interviews feel irrelevant. Why is actor John Turturro reciting from Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo, for example?

The documentary also includes background about the feature film, a groundbreaking drama that was originally to have been directed by John Avildsen. But Frank Serpico spends too much time restaging incidents familiar from the book and feature film. These sequences give Serpico the chance to go over old grudges and make blanket claims about corruption that no longer feel so convincing.

Principled and defiant, Frank Serpico displays a heroism that is hard to find in any day and age. But frankly, the Maas book and Lumet film are better at illuminating his importance than this documentary.

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