It seems like an eternity since Al Pacino last disquieted the screen (as raging cocaine king Tony Montana in Scarface), and when he first appears in Sea of Love, one can’t help but feel a charge of anticipation. Will the reflexes still be there?
Age has given Pacino a beautiful, sad grace. He’s got the pained eyes of the wounded, and he uses them to extraordinary effect. As Frank Keller, a 20-year veteran of the New York Police Department, Pacino has the hangdog look of someone who has been beaten into submission. Divorced and lonely, he spends his nights slouched on his couch swilling whisky and watching TV. When he’s put on the case of finding a serial killer who targets lonely hearts, he wades in like a tired hound, only to find himself revitalized by a sexy shoe-store manager (Ellen Barkin) who becomes a suspect in the case.
The acting is delicate and intense. The movie buzzes with intensity, too; Hollywood hasn’t made many scenes steamier than those between Pacino and Barkin. And Barkin, with her battered smile and lithe body, found herself hailed as a sex queen following this performance.
But Pacino’s brilliance and the film’s edginess don’t add up to much more than that. Richard Price (The Color of Money) has written a smart script and a great character. His dialogue has authenticity and individual scenes play wonderfully, especially those between Pacino and his bearish partner, played by John Goodman. This might have become a somber character study of a man who has learned never to trust — ”The worst part of being a cop,” he tells Barkin, ”is that eight hours a day all you hear are lies.” But Sea of Love turns out to be just another thriller, not a cunning thriller. The movie never probes the deeper question: How can one survive the duplicity Keller experiences daily? Rather, it just sways back and forth between, ”Is she the killer or isn’t she?”
The difference between the two questions is the difference between a superior film and one that is only entertaining. B