Spitting in the face of the idea that criminals are simply nurtured by their environments, legendary gangster Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino, doing a vague approximation of a Puerto Rican accent) stands before a judge in the 1993 Brian De Palma film Carlito’s Way and refuses to blame his criminal ways on his upbringing or the fact that his mother died when he was young: ‘The fact is, your honor, I was a mean little bastard when she was alive.’
It’s a rebuke to the environment-nurtures-criminals mentality that infused the previous De Palma/Pacino collaboration from 10 years earlier, Scarface, which stands as the bloody and exciting but frankly pretty immature younger brother to the more stately and ultimately more affecting Carlito’s Way. The differences are obvious right from the film’s opening gunshot: Carlito’s been popped and is being wheeled away to the hospital, musing as he dies, ‘Don’t take me to no hospital… Some bitch always pops you at midnight when all they got is a Chinese intern with a wooden spoon.’ The rest of the film is in flashback, starting with Carlito being let out of jail after serving only five years of a 30-year-sentence and leading back up to that gunshot.
Carlito’s lawyer, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn in a frizzy fright wig and snorting pounds of cocaine), got him off on a technicality, leaving Carlito feeling pretty grateful. So, when Kleinfeld tells him that he wants Carlito to come in and manage this club he’s invested in, Carlito agrees because, even though he’s trying to stay on the straight-and-narrow, he needs to save up some money for this idea he has to buy into a friend’s rental car business in the Bahamas. But Carlito The Good Citizen can’t escape the shadow of Carlito The Legend. On the one end he’s got hoods coming into his nightclub like Benny Blanco from the Bronx (a juiced-up, high-octave John Leguizamo in his first standout feature role) and on the other he’s got Kleinfeld, who’s gone from being a mob lawyer to being a mobster himself, and seems to always be asking another favor.
The film builds Carlito’s casket in small, exacting steps, each of them solid and immovable. But far from being a trudging, joyless affair, the film is awash in light and energy. De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp wisely set the story, based on a pair of novels by Edwin Torres, in 1975, which gives them the opportunity to introduce Carlito, who was imprisoned in the days of marijuana and Woodstock, to the crass excess of the disco era in full bloom. Swooning helicopter shots mix with teeming street scenes, and the steadicam guy gets a serious workout all the way through. Spiking the drama are a couple of action scenes – one tight and bottled up in a backroom pool hall-turned-ambush, and the other a long, lithe running gun battle in Grand Central – that are better than anything De Palma (or just about anybody else, really) has been able to do since.
In essence, all the stars were aligned on this one. De Palma came roaring back from the debacle of 1990′s Bonfire of the Vanities and the mostly-ignored Raising Cain of 1992, while Koepp delivered probably his last real screenplay (most of his work since, like Spider-Man and Panic Room, seems more like thriller film architecture than actual stories). Pacino plays it loud but not without many deeply affecting moments, and while he doesn’t exactly do justice to a Puerto Rican accent, it’s better than his mushmouthed Cuban manglings from Scarface. The word at the time was that Sean Penn came out of an early retirement for this, a wise move as he turned in one of the nerviest, funniest, heartbreaking pieces of acting not only of his but of anybody’s career. To watch him careen from coke-fueled paranoia to weepy weaseling to a creeping, boyish grin, all in one climactic scene, is nothing short of a revelation.
When Carlito’s Way comes to a close, it’s not with the bullet-sprayed machismo of Scarface, but with a kind of tragic, boozy lament, as Carlito is taken away (‘Bar’s closing… last call for drinks… tired, baby, tired….’), which stands in sharp to contrast to the rest of the film’s stark, staccato notes. It’s a daring choice, and well worth it, like closing a structured classical piece with a Tom Waits song.
The Ultimate Edition DVD includes deleted scenes, an interview with De Palma, a making-of featurette, and more.
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