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USA 1993
Directed by
Brian De Palma
141 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Carlito's Way

Re-teaming ten years after Scarface Al Pacino and director Brian De Palma combined for a gangster movie that, as with the best of the genre from Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) to Mann’s Heat (1995), both of which also starred Pacino, goes beyond the thrills of watching men behaving very badly and gives us an all-too-human story.

Pacino plays Carlito Brigante, a New York Puerto Rican former drug king-pin who has just got out of prison after serving five years of a thirty year sentence thanks to his wiley lawyer David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn). Carlito has promised himself to go straight but he can’t resist the pull of the barrio and gradually he gets dragged into his old life.

De Palma is a skilful director who can forget content in his love of form but with Carlito’s Way he gets the balance as right as he ever has.  Although it doesn’t have the memorable showiness of his Tony Montana Pacino’s performance is one of his best as we watch Carlito’s internal strugglings with an inbred machismo and his aspiration for a better life. In this respect the fact that Pacino is effectively narrating his own downfall is a very effective use of a device whose most famous exemplar is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Also adding hugely to the success of the film is Penn in an unusual role as Carlito’s supposed friend. With his curly wig and receding hairline, large gold-framed glasses and coke-fueled twitching he is both funny and repugnant at the same time, a two-faced wannabe who not only lacks the career gangster’s moral code but drags Carlito down with him. It is a beautifully conceived and executed relationship. 

The film is set in New York of the mid-‘70s and arguably De Palma overdoes the disco business, squeezing in virtually every hit song of the era but the club which Carlito is running looks more like a descendant of Rick’s Café than Studio 54.

Of the smaller roles Penelope Ann Miller (who never hit the big-time again) as Carlito’s girlfriend is a pleasingly angelic presence whilst John Leguizamo delivers a nice turn as a dandified punk, "Benny Blanco from the Bronx" and Luiz Gusmán is, as always a reliable, player.

Listening to Carlito’s dying reflections I was reminded of early Tom Waits. De Palma is similarly fascinated with the underbelly of society and the inexorable workings of Fate. Carlito’s Way is a top drawer addition to the genre.  But if only he hadn’t used that Joe Cocker song!

FYI : There was a 2005 sequel Carlito’s Way: Rise To Power without Pacino and directed by Michael  Bregman one of the producers of this film. I tried watching it but gave up. I don’t have that many sins to atone for.

The film's big set piece, a shoot-out at Grand Central Station, recalls the famous one in Chicago's Union Station in De Palma's The Untouchables (1987) 




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