Gangster Movie Month: "Carlito's Way" Review

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A Puerto-Rican ex-con just released from prison pledges to stay away from drugs and violence despite the pressure around him in NYC. Starring Al Pacino, Sean Penn, John Leguizamo, Penelope Anne Miller & Viggo Mortensen. Based on the novels "Carlito's Way" and "After Hours" by Judge Edwin Torres.
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Gangster Movie Month: "Carlito's Way" Review

-- Rating: R (strong violence, drug content, sexuality, and harsh language)
Length: 144 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 10, 1993
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller

Films about gangsters usually have confident, self-assured men as the leads, but "Carlito's Way" sets itself apart by having a rather tragic antihero as the lead. Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) begins the movie with a monologue after he has been shot and is on his way to the hospital. He wishes to explain how he got to this very unenviable position in life. His story is almost a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks that running drugs and having a criminal empire is glamorous.

The story begins in 1975, when he is just five years into a thirty-year jail sentence. Carlito's brilliant but crooked lawyer David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) has found a minor technicality in the police case that sent Carlito away, so he asks for the charges to be dismissed. After a very impassioned plea that he intends to go straight upon his release, the judge overturns his conviction and sets him free. The audience quickly learns that his vow to stay away from crime was not just to convince the judge to let him go. He fully intends on keeping his promise, and he plans to set up a rental car business in the Bahamas where, he can earn money from tourists while sipping umbrella drinks on the beach.

All Carlito needs is $75,000 to get started, so he returns to his old neighborhood in the hopes of scoring a legitimate job to earn the money. He takes a management role at a nightclub and looks up an old flame by the name of Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), who is a struggling stripper. The two fall in love again, which makes it seem as if Carlito's life might just have a happy ending in the Bahamas. Unfortunately, his reputation precedes him, and he is repeatedly tempted to engage in criminal activities again. He resists, but soon finds himself between a rock and a hard place, unable to say no to the people who are bent on getting him back into a life of crime. He has to make the decision to either start running and hope the mob never catches up with him, or stay and go back to his old ways.

The film is full of fantastic performances, with both Penn and Miller receiving Golden Globe nominations for their work. Miller is great as the stripper who is ashamed of her job but is much too pragmatic to quit since she depends on the money for her survival. Penn is almost unrecognizable as the smarmy lawyer Kleinfeld, who loves cocaine as much as he loves the money he rakes in by twisting the law to keep his scumbag clients out of jail. It is one of those rare performances that nearly transcends the movie itself. The audience gets to see an actor truly loose himself in a part, not only because the character looks nothing like Sean Penn, but because he emotes every word with a detailed brilliance that steals the show.

Even though Penn's performance is the real genius of the film, Pacino does some of his best work in years in "Carlito's Way." In one of his most famous gangster films, "Scarface," he spent half the movie yelling and barking orders as he slowly lost control of his sociopathic actions. In this film, he is pretty much the opposite of Tony Montana. Carlito wants to be a better man than he is, and wants to truly lead a straight life. When things finally spin out of control for him, it isn't at his own doing, as was the case with Tony Montana. Instead, when Carlito's world collapses, it is because of machinations that he had nothing to do with or tried mightily to avoid. Pacino gives a layered performance as a man who can't avoid his fate no matter how hard he tries.

"Carlito's Way" marks De Palma's return to crime films after dabbling in other genres with "The Bonfire of the Vanities." It feels like a long-lost family member who has finally returned home, as he returns to the form that made him famous. It doesn't hurt that he had heavyweights like Pacino and Penn in the cast, but they alone couldn't make the movie great. It's De Palma's eye for what works that gives the film its guts. He knows how to frame a shot, especially the shootout scenes that make men firing guns at each other look fresh and exciting. It takes an expert hand to guide what could have easily been an unruly film like "Carlito's Way," and De Palma was clearly up to the challenge.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars