Carlito’s Way (1993)
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller
Synopsis: A Puerto Rican former convict, just released from prison, pledges to stay away from drugs and violence despite the pressure around him and lead on to a better life outside of N.Y.C.
Brian De Palma was in need of a hit when Carlito’s Way was released in 1993. The train wreck that was Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) was still fresh in the minds of Hollywood executives, an unmitigated disaster that De Palma’s fraught thriller Raising Cain (1992) had done little to dispel. So he returned to relative safety of the gangland thriller that had served him so well ten years earlier with Scarface (1983), the bloody opus that chronicled the rise and fall of Cuban mobster Tony Camonte. In a further bid to secure success, De Palma also enlisted the services of Al Pacino, his leading man from Scarface, then hot from his Oscar-winning role in Scent of a Woman (1992). It could have turned out badly, but with the brutal and riveting first-person novels of Justice Edwin Torres as source material, De Palma would have had to have done something pretty spectacular to screw things up.
Pacino brings a measure of elegance to the role of Carlito Brigante, the anti-hero of the piece. As the film opens we see him taking a couple of bullets at close-range from an unseen killer, and then, in an extended flashback, Brigante narrates the events leading up to this moment. It was Torres’ unerring ear for the street language of his Puerto Rican protagonist that gave his novel Carlito’s Way a vibrancy that is strangely lacking from the movie. Pacino’s resigned and weary voiceover rarely sounds genuine, and occasionally pulls the audience out of the movie because his words ring not with the authenticity of a weary man recalling the significant events of his recent past but the measured tones of an accomplished actor reading his lines.
Released from prison on a technicality, Brigante makes an expansive speech about his rehabilitation that is strangely at odds with the character we then get to know. For the rest of the movie, Pacino adopts a laidback demeanour, a study in detached composure as he sets about putting into motion his plan to earn enough money to join his friend in the Bahamas where they plan to run a car rental agency together. However, Brigante almost immediately finds himself being pulled back into his former life of crime when he accompanies his young cousin on a drugs transaction that ends in a bloodbath. The episode provides Brigante with the money he needs to buy into a nightclub owned by David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), the slimy lawyer who got him out of prison.
Despite the memorable addition Brigante makes to Pacino’s list of characters – the guy never looked cooler – it’s Penn, barely recognisable behind spectacles and a receding perm, who gives the stand-out performance of the movie as Kleinfeld, the successful but low-life lawyer whose fascination with the criminals he represents leads to him joining their ranks on the tide of a fake bravado fuelled by a copious intake of cocaine. While it’s Kleinfeld who is ostensibly the instrument of Brigante’s downfall, it’s actually the Puerto Rican’s outdated code of morals that does him in. The five years he spent inside have seen a dramatic change on the streets, and the rise of a new generation of gangster unburdened by the codes that Brigante feels compelled to follow.
Carlito’s Way marked a return to form for De Palma, even though he frequently surrenders to his tendency to lay it all on a bit thick, and too often allows Brigante’s troubled relationship with his former girlfriend Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) to bring the narrative juddering to a halt. However, when the story focuses on the beleaguered gangster’s convoluted interactions with the criminal element it’s transformed into a tight, fast-paced work that effortlessly draws you into the world from which Brigante is striving to escape. This absorption is never more evident than in a beautifully filmed chase sequence in Grand Central Station late in the film which generates an incredible amount of tension considering we already know the outcome for Brigante. One of De Palma’s best works, Carlito’s Way has undoubtedly failed to receive the level of critical appreciation it deserves.
(Reviewed 11th June 2012)