The Principals: Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, John Goodman, Michael Rooker, John Spencer, William Hickey
The Premise: A weary but still sharp New York detective, Frank Keller (Pacino), beaten down by the demands of his job, his ex-wife shacking up with a colleague, and a drinking issue that is well on its way to becoming a problem, is on the case of a serial killer who is murdering men who placed dating ads in a local publication. He teams up with Queens detective, Sherman Touhey (Goodman) who also got a victim in his jurisdiction. Together, they set up a dating sting operation involving women who responded to the ads and who are suspects in the murders. Keller finds himself getting involved with one of the women, the sexy Helen Cruger (Barkin), who is looking more and more like the perpetrator.
Is It Good:
It’s great and has a lot of things going for it: suspense, sex, the buddy cop angle, an affecting portrayal by Pacino, sharp dialogue and a sense of New York (as much as a non New Yorker can tell anyway). Sea of Love is probably one of Pacino’s more overlooked films, although it’s credited with breaking a slump he had in the 1980s, including a four-year-hiatus since 1985’s Revolution. It’s shocking to realize that this is only one of five films he did the entire decade. But I think this was instrumental in getting him back on the horse for the string of notable roles he had in the ’90s.
Keller’s fatigue with both his life and job are palpable and Pacino wears his hangdog expression like a cheap coat. It’s with both Sherman and Helen – for very different reasons obviously – that he comes alive again. Of course, in the latter case, it’s the excitement of a particular misunderstanding involving a glimpse of a gun in a purse where he really wakes up.
Wait a minute…yeah, that’s a perfect fit for my foot…
Is It Worth A Look: Absolutely. Pacino and Goodman, who recently reprised their collaboration in the quite good Dr. Jack Kevorkian biopic, You Don’t Know Jack, have great interplay. Their characters instantly fall into a routine like they’d been partners for their entire careers. There’s fun dialogue between the two, both about the case and their personal lives, which include Keller falling for Kruger when he knows he shouldn’t. Goodman is often good as a second banana and here his Sherman is a wisecracking sidekick who livens up Keller’s somewhat bleak existence. As soon as he breaks into a rendition of the titular song, you know Sherman is going to be a handful.
On the flipside, Ellen Barkin (who A: has one of the sexiest mouths I’ve ever seen and B: still looks good 20+ years later) is crazy sexy as Helen. She oozes naughty sensuality and it’s easy to see why Keller, who lost his balls to his wife in the divorce, suddenly reclaims them when he meets her. With a memorable first night sex encounter and a bit of midnight role playing in a local store, Barkin steams up the screen.
I’d say this may be director Harold Becker’s (Vision Quest, Malice, City Hall) best film. He has a lot of location shooting and communicates a real taste of New York, especially in several sidewalk talking scenes. It was written by Richard Price (The Color of Money, Streets of Gold, Night and the City) and together with Becker, they present a sexual thriller that actually delivers on both, with just enough red herrings and did she/didn’t she to keep you wondering.
The late William Hickey has a memorable cameo, and the late John Spencer has a couple of quickie scenes. Pacino and Barkin wouldn’t work together again until Ocean’s 13 eighteen years later. Pacino would also reteam with Becker for City Hall in 1995.