Sea of Love (1989), directed by Harold Becker (City Hall, Domestic Disturbance), produced by Martin Bregman (Scarface) and written by Richard Price (Ransom, Clockers) is an undervalued film from the late ‘80s even among casual fans of Al Pacino’s work, who took a four-year hiatus from acting when he made this romantic mystery about a detective inspecting a string of murders that becomes intimately involved with a seductive woman who may be his prime suspect. Al Pacino has worked in over 50 features and Sea of Love, along with a list of others, are several films that have gone unnoticed and deserved to be revisited. In the ‘80s, it’s interesting to note that Al Pacino worked on 5 films, but he ended the decade with a jazz in this erotic and stimulating film. The title of the film is not ironic. Sea of Love is not just a crime story; it’s a romance.
Al Pacino plays New York City Police Detective Frank Keller, a 20-year veteran of the force who’s a work horse living a perilous lifestyle. Keller tag teams with Detective Sherman Touhey (John Goodman), to pursue the investigation of peculiar murders who seem to be the work of one culprit. Both Touhey and Keller believe the serial killer is a woman, so they stage an undercover operation inside of a restaurant after placing a single’s advertisement in the lonely hearts column in the back page of a newspaper. During these clandestine dates, both Keller and Touhey take turns disguised as a waiter and bachelor, to track down this bizarre serial killer. Amid the process, Keller meets the stunning Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin) and swayed by her innocence, he engages in an intimate relationship filled with passion, notwithstanding the proof that confirms her involvement with the murders.
The opening sequence doesn’t begin with a creative idea, but rather introduces the geography of the story to set the tone of the world we’re about to delve into, similar to countless other movies in cinema history. Over a bluesy Saxophone melody of Jazz on the soundtrack, director Harold Becker shows us shots of the New York City skyline in conjunction with the rain-swept city streets and Adult XXX theatres into the darkness of the New York City night with its lust infested streets of prostitutes roaming amid grid locked traffic. Overall, Sea of Love captures New York City in a way that evokes nostalgia for the ‘80s. The small-apartment lifestyles, the corner markets, the busy restaurants and the dangerous criminals who walkabout in broad daylight remind us that every character in this film is a suspect because that’s the type of metropolis we’re dealing with, a melting pot; the most populous city in the United States where it’s incredibly difficult to tell who’s who and what’s what.
Screenwriter Richard Price strategically employed many plot devices to bring about a level of empathy in the audience for the character Frank, our hero, the protagonist. Despite Frank’s harsh and manipulative demeanor in busting dozens of criminals, he has a soft side, a heart. Frank reveals himself as an undercover cop after a successful sting operation designed to invite the city’s ruthless criminals to a New York Yankees convention, deceptively arresting crooks on the promise that they’ll meet the baseball players. When Frank and his fellow NYPD are just about to wrap up, a convict shows up at the last minute, running down the sidewalk with his adolescent son carrying the promise of meeting a Yankee. Frank tells him the event is cancelled, then flashes his badge, letting the father and his son go free. Frank drinks, smokes and phones his ex-wife, Denise, in a poor state of mind, as he pities himself inside his lonely apartment. His ex-wife, Denise, split with Frank and married his colleague Detective Gruber (Richard Jenkins), who claims that Frank is alone because of his own issues. Frank lives with his ailing father, and cares for him, by picking him up and tucking him into bed. These plot devices build our support for Frank as a character, causing us to root for him. We want Frank to find love and when he joins forces with Touhey at a police convention, they exchange pleasantries over drinks and jokes, determined to track down this serial killer they suspect to be a woman, since the series of victims of naked men bizarrely lying face down on a bed.
Al Pacino displays a convincing performance as a seen-it-all detective with a burning desire for love by wooing Helen to the point of practically begging to gain her emotional support. It’s done in a heartfelt way that almost every man can relate to. Harold Becker’s Sea of Love is that rare gem of Pacino’s filmography that has gone unnoticed and considering the time of its release in 1989 on the cusp of a new decade and after a four-year hiatus from acting, it’s Al Pacino’s comeback movie, displaying his prowess as an actor in the world of cinema.