HD DVD
For Fans Only
2.5 stars
Overall Grade
2.5 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
4 Stars
HD Video Quality
4 Stars
HD Audio Quality
2 Stars
Supplements
0 Stars
High-Def Extras
0 Stars
Bottom Line
For Fans Only

Serpico (French Import)

Street Date:
August 20th, 2008
Reviewed by:
Peter Bracke
Review Date: 1
February 17th, 2008
Movie Release Year:
1973
Studio:
Studio Canal
Length:
129 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Rated R
Release Country
France

Editor's Notes

This is a review of the French HD DVD release of 'Serpico.' This movie has not been announced for release on either high-def disc format in the United States, although domestic home entertainment rights are owned by Paramount, which is currently releasing titles on HD DVD only. (For more information about importing HD DVD discs, visit the HD DVD imports thread in our forums area.)

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

The film opens with Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) lying on a hospital gurney, bleeding from a gunshot wound. Through flashbacks, we'll journey back with him as he recounts his career as an undercover police officer. From green recruit to jaded veteran, Serpico moves through the ranks, his ambition surpassed only by his idealism. Aghast at the assumption that he must take bribes and bow to the internal corruption that is now de rigueur, Serpico makes more enemies than friends inside the force. Bucking every convention, from his refusal to play by the rules to sartorial insubordination (Frank would sport long hair, bell bottoms, and espouse hippie philosophy in an era when cops were still straight shooters with "Dragnet" crew cuts), he would take on nothing less than the entire system -- even at the risk of paying the ultimate price.

Directed by Sidney Lumet, 'Serpico' is a product of the early '70s and a perfect time capsule of the zeitgeist of the time. The film was warmly received by an American culture that, in the wake of Vietnam and the emerging scandal of Watergate, had been left cynical towards its own government and the integrity of its institutions. Lumet and Pacino took the real-life story of Frank Serpico and added carefully-modulated fictional elements to construct a searing portrait of a police bureaucracy out of control, one that stifles its own enforcers by turning them into the same crooks they are supposed to be putting away.

With 'Serpico,' Lumet explored territory that he would revisit throughout his career. Movies as disparate as 'Dog Day Afternoon,' the recent 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' and even 'The Wiz,' are united not just by the grittiness of their urban settings, but by the same thematic concerns. If not as consistently as Martin Scorsese, Lumet has reveled in exploring the underbelly of larger societal ills through the journeys of outsiders, masquerading as insiders, in order to change the system. In 'Serpico,' Lumet may have found what remains the ideal vehicle to tell his oft-told story.

Just as the mean streets are familiar terrain for Lumet, the character of Frank Serpico is a through-line to many of the most memorable figures in Pacino's formidable oeuvre. It's easy to see shades of Tony Montana, Carlito Briganti and 'Cruising's Steve Burns in this title role, but even measured against those iconic portrayals, Pacino has never have been more authentic than he is here. It's a performance (Oscar-nominated to boot) that, along with Gene Hackman in 'The French Connection,' was responsible for re-framing our culture's view of cops from the pious do-gooders popularized by '50s and 60s TV to the morally ambiguous crusaders that reign on the screen today. That Pacino is so strong here may, ironically, be one of the film’s only real flaws, as he obliterates everyone else on screen, to the point that nothing registers aside from him.

'Serpico' stumbles in the haphazard structure of its script by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, with the focus on Serpico as a character study often coming at the expense of the film's effectiveness as an engrossing drama, or a first-rate action film on the level of ‘The French Connection' or 'Bullitt.' 'Serpico' borders on tedium, with the meandering scenes of Serpico's backstory (which is eventually dropped with no apparent purpose), and the insights into his personal life that don't really illuminate the idealism that drives his crusade against police corruption. Lumet’s manner of dragging out many scenes also doesn't help the sometimes sluggish pacing (even by '70s standards). Witness a scene of Pacino contemplating how to cross an overpass, which goes on for so long it robs the moment of any urgency, it's a far cry from the nail-biting tension Lumet brought to even the most banal of bank scenes in 'Dog Day Afternoon' (also starring Pacino). Perhaps Lumet embraced the idea of taking his time a bit too much in 'Serpico.'

Yet the film remains a seminal genre film of the '70s. With its convention-shattering anti-hero and its willingness to expose the hypocrisy behind the very organizations that are supposed to protect and serve us, ‘Serpico’ continues to influence today's cop cinema. Recent films as disparate as 'American Gangster,' 'Narc,' and Michael Mann's entire oeuvre all share lineage with 'Serpico,' and sadly, it's relevance hasn't diminished in today's world where corruption in law enforcement is accepted as business as usual. Perhaps 'Serpico' is a film that, in retrospect, is more flawed than its pedigree might suggest, but anchored by a towering performance by Pacino, it remains a must-see.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

'Serpico' comes to HD DVD courtesy of Studio Canal, who present the film in 1.78:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video. This transfer looks close enough to the recent Paramount DVD version that I would be surprised if they weren't both taken from the same source -- which is a good thing, as 'Serpico' looked excellent on standard-def, and is nicely upgraded here.

Paramount did a fine job with the recent remaster, and what an excellent source this is. Sure, there's a bit of grain and dirt here or there, but its shockingly minor for a 1973 film. Blacks are very deep and contrast is quite slick, so the image certainly has far more punch than I expected. Colors have a dull '70s sheen, but are very well saturated and clean considering the almost sepia-toned visual style.

In terms of an upgrade, overall visible detail is boosted over the standard-def. It's not to an amazing degree of difference, but close-ups in particular reveal much better fine texture and realism. Shadow delineation also receives some uplift, with details that were murky on the standard-def here clearer and more distinct (this is especially apparent on wide shots and nighttime exteriors). The cinema verite nature of 'Serpico' prevents it from benefiting tremendously from the move to high-def, but it’s hard to imagine the film looking any better on video than it does here.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

Studio Canal offers up an English DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 2.0 Stereo track for 'Serpico' encoded at 48kHz/16-bit (German and French DTS-HD High-Resolution 1.0 tracks are also provided).

This mix is noticeably hampered by the source elements. This sounds every bit like a worn early-'70s mono soundtrack. There is little finesse or fidelity to the track, with very flat bass response and thin, reedy high-end. Dialogue is hardly helped by the limited dynamics, with low tones often obscured even at a decent volume level. As this is essentially a mono track spread out to two front channels, even stereo separation is dull (don't expect even the illusion of envelopment here). To be fair, the source is at least clean, so there are no audible dropouts or other major anomalies, but that's about the best I can say about this soundtrack.

Note: 'Serpico' includes German and French subtitle options, which are "forced" when the English soundtrack is selected, meaning that there is no way to turn them off. While I did eventually get used to the subtitles as the film progressed, this is still an irritant, and it's frustrating that Studio Canal has not allowed for better user control on a next-gen release.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

There are no bonus features, other than a preview of other Studio Canal HD DVD releases (all trailers in French).

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

Nope, no high-def exclusives, either.

Final Thoughts

'Serpico' is a tough and gritty thriller from the great Sidney Lumet. It's a tad bit dated 35 years on, but Al Pacino's seminal performance alone makes it worth seeing. This French HD DVD import is a bit bare bones -- you get a very good transfer, but only serviceable audio and nary a single supplement. This is probably a tough sell for all but diehard Pacino fans, so you might be better off waiting for a domestic high-def release or just giving the standard-def DVD version a rent instead.

Technical Specs

  • HD DVD
  • HD-30 Dual-Layer Disc

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/VC-1

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.85:1

Audio Formats

  • English DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 2.0 Stereo (48kHz/16-bit)
  • French DTS-HD High-Resolution 1.0 Mono (192kbps)
  • German DTS-HD High-Resolution 1.0 Mono (192kbps)

Subtitles/Captions

  • French Subtitles
  • German Subtitles

Supplements

  • None

Exclusive HD Content

  • None

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