When it was announced that Exorcist director William Friedkin and Serpico star Al Pacino were teaming up to make a gritty, New York police thriller in 1980, nothing grabbed the attention of cinema-goers more than the idea of Cruising--especially America's gay community at the time. Immediately considered grotesque and too dark for middle America, and exploitative, and wholly offensive to everyone else with its seeming portrayal of gay men as nothing more than leather chap-wearing, bushy mustache-sporting, sadomasochistic party animals, Cruising was quickly buried in the studio vault shortly after its quick life-span in theaters. But today the film can finally be viewed and appreciated for what it is: an over-the-top, campy, cult classic with a surprisingly engaging story, and an ambiguous twist ending that will linger with you for hours afterwards.
Al Pacino stars as Detective Steve Burns, who receives an assignment to go undercover after a serial killer starts preying on New York City's gay, S&M community. Dawning tight leathers and various colored handkerchiefs in his back pocket, Burns takes to the streets and investigates the underground clubs of Manhattan's Meatpacking District (really--no pun intended). As the detective comes closer to finding his target, he starts questioning his own sexuality and violent urges--making him a loose cannon with the police department, and an enigma amongst the sub-culture that occupies his new daily life.Continue Reading
Al Pacino played his first cop in Serpico and, by my count, would go on to do it six more times in Cruising, Sea of Love, Heat, Insomnia, Righteous Kill, and something called The Son of No One. (He’s played a criminal in twice as many films.) It’s fair to say that at the time Serpico was released there had never been an on screen cop like this one. It was Pacino’s most Dustin Hoffman-like performance (back in those days they were compared to each other, for good reason). In Serpico, Pacino seemed shorter than usual, his back was humped, his voice more nasally, and his Elliott Gould mustache early in the film grows into a full on scraggily beard. Serpico was an oddball cop who liked ballet, lived with the freaks in the Village, had a dog instead of a baby, and most weird of all, wouldn’t take a payoff. In New York that was enough to almost get you killed.
Serpico’s story take place in the '60s, which was a time of unprecedented police brutality. In the South civil rights workers were being abused by cops. In the North racist big city cops were continually harassing black citizens which led to many major uprisings (or riots). Vietnam protesters in Chicago were faced with Gestapo tactics on national television. The film was an unflinching look at the underbelly of a police force that differed so much from the propaganda Hollywood had given us about cops on TV and films for decades. The film was based on the hard-hitting, best-selling biography of Detective Frank Serpico by Peter Maas (King of the Gypsies), with a screenplay by Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy) and Norman Wexler (Saturday Night Fever). The great New York director Sidney Lumet (Network) took over production after John G. Avildsen (Rocky) was fired. Lumet brought his signature grit to the look and, as usual, elicited truthful performances from the cast.Continue Reading