Released in 1989. Written by Richard Price. Directed by Harold Becker. Starring Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, & John Goodman. Running time 1 hour 53 minutes. Rated R.
So, some guys who have recently answered some singles ads in the local New York paper have turned up dead. Frank (Al Pacino) and Sherman (John Goodman) are New York City cops who decide to team up to catch a killer. Frank meets Helen (Ellen Barkin) along the way and gets involved in a romantic affair with her even though she may be connected to the murders… Oooh, suspense!
What I liked
Ellen Barkin and her crooked smile. She’s perfect in this film with her sleek, sophisticated look opposite Al Pacino’s consistently disheveled look of a burnt out NY cop who wears clothes a half size too big. They aren’t the usual couple which is why their chemistry and pairing work so well. Ellen Barkin’s character Helen stays consistent with her take no crap-honesty is the best policy-sexually charged portrayal as a women who is looking for connections via personal ads. *She has a history with an abusive ex and she’s a working single mom, so she doesn’t have a lot of time for bs.* She can see right through Frank when she first meets him but gives him a second chance when she learns he’s a bit of a romantic. Barkin is straight forward in every scene and fully committed in the moments with intense emotions and energy driving the audience to second guess whether she’s the killer or the bait.
Al Pacino. A seasoned cop and a lonely drunk who’s wife left him for another cop and he’s a bit bitter about it. When he teams up with Sherman to find the killer, his world turns upside down as he lets this new affair get in the way of him doing his job. While Frank steps outside his comfort zone with Helen, he never fully gives up his cop centered thinking but instead uses the contradiction of wanting to catch the killer and hoping it isn’t her to portray how complicated things get when you’re in over your head (Or thinking with your dick instead of your brain. Of course that would’ve been a boring movie.). He experiences a full character arc from burnt out drunk and bitter to being “8 months on the wagon” and ready to move on. He’s fully committed in this film as well. When he’s scared, he genuinely looks scared. When he’s searching for words for an excuse, the pacing feels completely natural and in the moment.
The scenes in this film were well shot, sexy, suspenseful, and dynamic. The police scenes seemed accurate and natural with the way cops interact with each other as well as with guys being drawn into a sting operation to arrest a bunch of guys wanted with warrants. (This scene was based on a true event in New York City in which the cops sent letters to men with warrants inviting them to a “Breakfast with the Yankees” event. In the movie, you’ll catch a young Samuel L. Jackson speaking up and taking his moment as up and comer!) John Goodman and Al Pacino have great chemistry in this film and feel like a seasoned cop partnership. I could see them taking these two characters to Law and Order or a cop show of their own and having a hit.
The scenes with Helen and Frank were gritty, dirty sexy (versus romantic), and raw. When she’s blunt and looking for answers, Frank is unable to look her in the eye. He’s like a vulnerable boy who so desperately wants to be with her yet can’t be totally himself or honest out of fear of losing her. It’s a great dynamic. I love the non-sex sex scenes, too because it would have been so easy to show them having sex and they chose to leave it up to the imagination of the audience. When Frank pours his heart out to Helen in her kitchen and then sees the names of the victims on her refrigerator, the look on his face in both moments is so spot on, I found myself saying, “Better get out of there Frank…”
The scenes with the killer are freaking terrifying and intense. The killer is actually Helen’s ex who has been stalking her the past eight months and kills the men she dates from the personal ads. He forces them to get undressed and simulate having sex with her while he intimidates them with a gun and then shoots them while they lay face down. When the killer comes for Frank, it’s expected and yet shot in a way to make you feel surprised and then immediately, “Oh crap, how’s he going to get out of this?” The fight scene between him and the killer is dramatic and intense (And a little over the top because he hits the killer with a dumbbell and it doesn’t knock the killer out. Adrenaline, am I right?) and well choregraphed and shot. I’m not giving away who the killer is in case someone reading this hasn’t seen the movie yet. But I will say, once you know, the actor who plays him is soooo good!
The restaurant scene with Frank meeting all of the ladies who answered his personal ad. (They think the killer is a woman at this point.) On of the first women Frank meets is an older woman played by Patricia Barry who is quite attractive but gets dismissed quickly by Frank. She’s hurt but puts her best face forward and leaves his table with dignity. Later we see she never left the restaurant and has been sitting by the bar the whole time watching Frank go through women every thirty minutes. When he sees her and she looks at him as she leaves, the look on her face gets me every time. The hurt, the embarrassment, the humiliation… I feel so bad for her. And Frank does to, for a minute.
What I wish was better
Continuity in film always gets me and while sometimes (okay, rarely) I can over look it, other times the fix is so easy (to me) that I wonder why they didn’t just take care of it at the time. Maybe the bits didn’t come up at the time or maybe the footage was there but they decided not to use it? I dunno. Most of my issues are really nit-picky so…
In an early scene, Frank drunk dials his ex-wife wearing boxers and a t-shirt. later in the film, after a night with Helen, he wears briefs. Pick one people. I think Frank is more of a boxer wearing man so… I know, I know… BUT, everywhere else his wardrobe choices make perfect sense. Why disrupt my thought process with something that doesn’t?
Regarding the killer. I have a fundamental issue with the use of the 45 recording of Sea of Love being played at the crime scenes. Everything about the killer I am totally on board with. He’s a jealous ex who wants to humiliate and kill any guy who has sex with Helen. That’s as far as his premeditation goes for me. He brings a gun to the party. It’s all he needs. Am I supposed to think either the men he kills all have a copy of the song Sea of Love as a 45 record or that the killer brings with him a copy of the record to play? What if the guy doesn’t have a record player? Does he buy another record before he goes out to kill? Also, what is the significance of the song? When Frank is at Helen’s house and goes through her record collection, he asks her about Sea of Love specifically but she replies with some dismissive answer about not really knowing what’s in those boxes of 45s. She’s saving them for her daughter. Wouldn’t this have been an opportunity for her to mention it was one of her exes favorite songs or something to that effect? Linking her to the murders in some way? Also, Frank and Sherman try to warn one of the guys who answered an ad but he swears he isn’t going to follow through. The next time we see him, he’s dead. I’m wondering why they didn’t put a cop on him to follow him or something to see if he might lead them to the killer. Missed opportunity?
Overall, I love this film. It’s one I can watch every now and then and still feel the urgency, the chemistry between the characters, the tension, and the terror in the final fight scene. While the film has a bit of “happy ending”, I don’t think Frank and Helen are going to end up being an old married couple as it might suggest. Maybe more like super good friends who had a fling in the past? Pacino and Barkin are giving solid performances and the film is sexy, gritty, and thrilling giving catching a killer film in a way that works. It gets the neo-noir thriller genre exactly right. The lonely saxophone in the score really finds the heart of a thriller in New York.
I give Sea of Love a 4 1/4 out of 5. Available on Amazon. Watch the trailer below:
Fun fact: Dustin Hoffman was originally attached to this film but was released due him wanting too many rewrites. A smart move by those in charge. I don’t think he would’ve had the same level of chemistry with John Goodman and Ellen Barkin.