Credit Trevor Tweeten/IFC Films
This movie’s intention is in its title. The documentary “Frank Serpico” fills out an American classic that is now almost 45 years old. “Serpico,” the 1973 movie directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino, was an adaptation of a book by Peter Maas about a New York City police officer who fought corruption in the ranks and got, among other things, a bullet in the head for his trouble. The real-life subject is now 81 years old, whippet-thin, and a storyteller and self-examiner of no small gifts.
Whenever Mr. Serpico appears in this admiring film, directed by Antonino D’Ambrosio, the movie lights up. “I told myself I was an actor,” he says into a mirror onscreen, describing how he would work himself up before hitting the streets to make arrests. He recalls, speaking from the restaurant in Brooklyn that used to be his father’s shoe-repair store, how even in childhood his admiration for police work was mitigated by experience. Once, he says, a uniformed officer came into the place, got a shoeshine from Frank, who was then a child, and left without paying. Next time, Frank’s father demanded payment upfront. “The cop never came into the store again,” Mr. Serpico says. “Although he had the shield of the law, he demeaned it by his actions.”
Mr. Serpico joined the force in 1959 and, witnessing casual payoffs that were accepted without a thought, encountered further disappointment: “The job was not on the level.”
Trailer: ‘Frank Serpico’
The star of the movie is a compelling figure, and Mr. D’Ambrosio presents quite a few people from Mr. Serpico’s past who have a similar draw. But the director’s filmmaking instincts are not always salutary. He introduces each new interviewee with a shot of the subject standing, looking into the camera for several seconds. This affectation grows wearying. The actor John Turturro is not an uninteresting subject, but watching him talk about his reaction to the Lumet-Pacino movie, you get the feeling he is only there because Mr. D’Ambrosio could not secure an on-camera interview with Mr. Pacino.
The movie does feature a sit-down between Mr. Serpico and Arthur Cesare, his partner in the narcotics division, who was present the night Mr. Serpico was shot. He tells Mr. Cesare that he considers it peculiar that no 10-13, or “officer in need of assistance,” call went out on his behalf. But there’s no combustion in the confrontation, and the exchange goes limp. Could Mr. Cesare have called it in, and if so, why didn’t he? Like much else in the movie, it’s frustrating.