Remember these movie titles: Bobby Deerfield, Cruising, Revolution. They are the answer to a trivia question that is bound to arise over and over after the theatrical release of Carlito's Way. To wit: "Is Al Pacino capable of making a bad movie?"
Yes he is, but this isn't one of them. If a superlative exists that hasn't already been sorely overused to describe Pacino's talent, plug it in here. He makes it look so easy, you almost forget that the intense actor with the haunted eyes was nominated for seven Academy Awards before finally winning the Best Actor statuette last year for his over-the-top role as blind military hero Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman. With each succeeding release you wonder if Pacino has peaked, only to watch him outdo himself. From the strung-out junkie in The Panic in Needle Park to Sonny, the hapless bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon, to fast-talking salesman Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, the diminutive powerhouse has created one unforgettable pop culture antihero after another.
Like the character of Carlito Brigante, most of them have been gangsters or cops. This is his speciality. Michael Corleone (The Godfather series), Frank Serpico, Big Boy Caprice (Dick Tracy), Frank Keller (Sea of Love) -- if you took away all the performances where he's played either a career enforcer or violator of the law, Pacino's oeuvre would be gutted. One of the qualities that makes Carlito's Way special is that it feels like a culmination, like Pacino (and, for that matter, costar Sean Penn and director Brian De Palma) has learned from all of his past efforts and distilled that knowledge into one transcendent moment. In fact, the movie reverberates with unexpectedly slick performances; even Argentinian comedian Jorge Porcel, the Spanish-speaking Benny Hill, excels in a bit part.
The film was adapted from a pair of novels, Carlito's Way and After Hours, written by Edwin Torres. Torres knows the territory well -- as a New York state supreme court justice, he has presided over some of the city's most sensational cases, including the trial of the rapists of the Central Park jogger. He earned the nickname The Time Machine for his tough sentencing, and legend has it he once sent a repeat offender off to state prison with the warning, "Your parole officer hasn't been born yet." The movie that De Palma and company have produced is every bit as hard-nosed.
Carlito's Way is like Scarface transplanted to the Saturday Night Fever era. If bigger-than-life Cuban cocaine cowboy Tony Montana had lived longer, he might have ended up a lot like this film's protagonist. He's a one-time heroin trafficker who served five years of a 30-year sentence before his sleazy lawyer David Kleinfeld, played to egomaniacal, self-delusional perfection by Sean Penn, gets him off on a technicality. Poor Carlito A all the young bucks want to challenge the fastest gun, his anachronistic code of honor is vanishing from the streets with each new crop of punks and shipload of yayo, his old friends wear wires and try to set him up, and even his girlfriend gave up her dream of becoming a ballerina to make ends meet by stripping at a topless club. To top it off, the lawyer to whom he owes his life is in big trouble with the Sicilian Mafia. And just when Carlito is about to earn enough money through legitimate means to stake himself to a partnership in a car rental company in the Bahamas, Kleinfeld entangles him in a web of deceit and murder.
You have to feel for Carlito. No matter how adamantly he insists, no one believes he has really reformed. Not Gail (Penelope Ann Miller gets the call as the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Michelle Pfeiffer surrogate), the girlfriend who wants to trust him but knows better. Not his former partners in crime who still respect his reputation but wonder if Carlito is going soft or holding out on them. And especially not his attorney, who has acquired a nasty little coke habit and a penchant for getting in over his head in a series of illegal scams during Carlito's time in the joint.
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"I don't invite this shit. It just comes to me," says the world-weary ex-felon. Sure enough, during his first day as a free man after half a decade in prison, his well-meaning but naive cousin enlists him as backup in a drug deal that turns out to be a rip-off. Bullets fly, a throat gets slit, and less than 24 hours after hitting the street Carlito finds himself standing over his cousin's bleeding corpse.
The Tony Montana comparisons are unavoidable even though Carlito is more complex and less cartoonlike. Both characters are familiar archetypes that could have been assembled from real-life headlines. Carlito is Puerto Rican and deals heroin; Tony was Cuban and dealt coke. Both have drop-dead beautiful blonde gringo girlfriends. And in both films Pacino mangles the accents (Tony Montana sounded more Mexican than Cuban; Carlito is part Michael Corleone, part Tom Waits), but his acting is so seamless that it more than compensates. Pacino's Carlito is a tour de force, the ultimate gangster role for the actor who does them as well as anyone.
De Palma is at his campy, carnal, degenerate best evoking the retired gangster's neon-lit world. Carlito is like Bogart in Casablanca; he manages a popular nightclub where mounds of cocaine are consumed and uninhibited sex is everywhere (no one's heard of crack babies or AIDS yet), yet the stoic hero abstains. Tito Puente and Willie Colon alternate with the Bee Gees, B.T. Express, and KC and the Sunshine Band over the sound system. Lights flash, music pounds, waves of attractive young people in full Seventies regalia shake their booties to "Fly, Robin, Fly" and "Disco Inferno." If the movie had no other redeeming values, it would still be fun for the opportunity to vicariously relive the excesses of the lost decade.
Pacino's Carlito cuts through it all like Batman in his calf-length, black leather jacket and matching suit, but his buddy Kleinfeld is all bad hair, gaudy ties, and bell-bottoms. The receding 'do renders Sean Penn nearly unrecognizable, but his subtly detailed portrayal of the wanna-be wiseguy attorney is as sublime as the goofy locks are embarrassing. It's the volatile young actor's best work in a long time; just holding your own with Pacino at the top of his game is a noteworthy accomplishment. And this is definitely Pacino at the top of his game. Go out of your way for Carlito.