1993, R, 144 min. Directed by Brian De Palma. Starring Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, Luis Guzman, James Rebhorn, Viggo Mortensen, Ingrid Rogers, John Leguizamo.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 12, 1993
After too long in the wasteland, Brian De Palma has once again found his footing. With Carlito's Way, De Palma has turned out a masterful piece of entertainment anchored by an interesting story and fine performances and hoisted by an intoxicating field of vision that nevertheless, maintains a sharply focused perspective. In some ways the movie is reminiscent of De Palma's last reteaming with Pacino in Scarface, but only in the sense of their narrative settings in drug underworlds. Yet Carlito's Way, though violent, has little of that baroque, drug-paranoid barrage of bulletry that pocked Scarface. Carlito (Pacino), through whose eyes we witness the whole movie, is a man who carries a gun; it's part of his work, a part of who he is. But rather than say that Carlito is willing to use his gun, it's perhaps more to the point to say that he is not unwilling to use it. Set in Spanish Harlem in 1975, the story is derived from a couple of novels by Edwin Torres, a New York State Supreme Court justice. Opening with the inexplicable subway shooting of a character to whom we're yet to be introduced, the sequence is filmed from this character's skewed point of view as seen from his gurney. That character is Carlito who next we see as he's being sprung on a technicality from a 30-year jail sentence after five years by his wily attorney and old friend Kleinfeld (Penn). Formerly a major player in all sorts of underworld economies, Carlito returns to his barrio a respected figure despite the fact that he wants to go straight and open a car rental agency in the Bahamas. All he needs is a stake and even then, he works a straight job managing a nightclub and saves his money. Well, maybe also he needs his old girlfriend Gail (Miller), a woman who might go along with his fool's dream about the Bahamas in the same way that she is the only person to call him Charlie. Early on, the street-wise Carlito remarks to Kleinfeld that “a favor will kill you faster than a bullet” and from there we can see the end coming. And so should Carlito. But then we'd be deprived of the thrill of getting there. As an actor, Pacino imbues Carlito with such spark and quick grace, bringing a depth to the character that I'm not sure was fully there in the original script. Penn turns in another extraordinary performance as Kleinfeld. It takes a while to even recognize Penn in the role and then once you do, you suspect that he's really playing Daniel Stern playing a coked-out mob lawyer who's begun to think of himself as above all law. Miller, by and large, has a thankless role as the enigmatic Gail, a character lacking depth and dimension. The real star here, however, is De Palma's signature camerawork. It reels and swoops and tracks and pans, creating palpable physical excitement and interest. In the Seventies nightclub set with its tiered architecture and flashing lights and choice disco music (choices were supervised by Jellybean Benitez), the movie pulses with energy and fervor. With a concluding chase/shoot-out episode that might even make Hitchcock jealous, Carlito's Way is a dandy piece of entertainment. If the story needs a bit more depth and reason, who really cares? There's hardly time to notice.