Thursday, 18 August 2016

Sea of Love (1989)

Ask anyone to name a film in which Al Pacino played a cop and they're going to name Serpico or Heat. Some might even name Cruising, a film whose controversy and power to shock has ensured it has lodged into some people's consciousness forever more. But I have a theory that it is Pacino's 'comeback' film, the overlooked Sea Of Love, that is actually the most influential policier of recent times.

It's a theory that can certainly be proved here in the UK; the Jasper Carrott/Robert Powell '90s sitcom The Detectives spoofed it in an episode wonderfully entitled 'DC of Love', the late '90s Keith Allen drama Jack of Hearts references the blistering chemistry between Pacino and his leading lady Ellen Barkin, whilst the surprisingly good and gritty early '00s Nick Berry and Stephen Tomkinson cop vehicle In Deep saw the blind date/DNA steal scenario employed in the film lifted completely for one episode. Most recently, in 2013, the light-hearted cop drama By Any Means stole the idea of the police using the promise of meeting local sporting heroes to lure criminals with outstanding warrants originally used here. 

It's perhaps precisely because Sea Of Love has become so forgotten that the replication of some of its scenes, setpieces and ideas has become so commonplace. But just why Sea of Love has fallen through the cracks is something I have no theory on at all, because this is a great film that deserves wider attention.

Pacino hadn't made a film in four years when Sea of Love came around, having retreated to the theatre to lick his wounds after the ill advised Revolution. But he came back and how with his performance here as Detective Frank Keller, a jaded divorcee and twenty-year man staring into the abyss of a mid-life crisis, making all the wrong moves and, worst of all, being conscious of every single one. It's the kind of role in the kind of film that on a bad day would star Michael Douglas, that king of the mid-life crisis sex thriller, so let's be grateful for the impeccable acting and natural charisma Pacino displays here. With this one film he made up for all the sins inherent in Revolution and in some ways you could unfortunately argue that he never bettered the renewed potential he showed here for further mainstream Hollywood projects.

The central premise sees Keller investigating a serial killer who is seemingly seeking out his or her victims in the pages of the lonely hearts column, and who leaves the unfortunate victim prostrate upon the bed with the old Phil Phillips song Sea of Love playing on the turntable. Along with his partner played by John Goodman, Keller hatches a plan to go undercover in an attempt to root out the murderer. Placing his own ad in the lonely hearts, he goes through a series of dates and meets the hard yet brittle single mother Helen, played by Ellen Barkin. Against his better judgement, Keller falls desperately in love. But he can't escape the niggling suspicion that she might just be the one he's looking for.

Both Pacino and Barkin deliver excellent performances here and are both wonderfully sensual and sexy in their interplay together, whilst the supporting cast includes not just the reliable light relief of Goodman, but also a youngish (though still largely bald) Richard Jenkins as the cop who stole Pacino's wife away, and a young Samuel L Jackson in a minor role as a criminal. 

What makes Sea of Love so good is its genuine air of unpredictability which was so inherent in Hollywood films that the time, back when films seem to have memorable hooks and twists as a matter of course and would ensure you never heard certain songs in the same light again (see also Blue Velvet, Halloween II and The Crying Game). Granted there is an issue of tonal consistency sometimes as the film attempts to juggle its sinister thriller elements alongside its romance, but I find you can easily forgive the film these faults when its narrative and intentions are so good. And when you consider what Sea of Love does with its source material, and how influential it has actually become, it clearly pays off.

And for what it's worth, I'm one of those smug know-alls who would have cited Sea of Love if you'd ask me to name a film which saw Pacino play a cop. And why not, I've loved this for years now.

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