Any film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino should be great, but "Serpico" is mediocre at best. Chronicling the true-life story of Frank Serpico, a police officer who exposed corruption in the NYPD, the film comes from that exquisite golden age of cinema, lasting from the late '60s through the late '70s, when paranoia infected the country and our most trusted and honored institutions were becoming suspect. It's got the grainy, neo-realistic feel that so many of the films from that time period had (and as many of Lumet's own films had), yet it never really works. Lumet's pacing is poor; no scene lasts longer than a minute or two. While one would think this would make for a film with some narrative drive to it, just the opposite happens. It's as if in the editing room all of the important parts of each scene got left out, and what we've been given as a final product is an outline of Serpico's story. No characters beyond Pacino's is really developed, and even he struggles to make something substantial out of his role. This came directly on the heels of "The Godfather" from the year before, the film that put Pacino on the map. "Serpico" gives testament to Pacino's abilities and range as an actor; his performance is quite different from that of Michael Corleone. But for me, it's not until his mesmerizing performance in "Dog Day Afternoon" from 1975 that Pacino really flexes his acting muscles and shows what a true cinematic treasure he is.
26 years later, Pacino was to star in "The Insider," another thriller where he played a character who helps to expose corruption, this time in the world of corporate America. My advice is to see "Serpico" for the place it holds in Pacino's career, but then see "The Insider" for a suspenseful, terrific movie.