Saturday 9 July 2016

Movie Review: Carlito's Way (1993)

A familiar crime drama with a good cast and quality execution, Carlito's Way suffers from an inability to break away from overexposed genre elements.

New York City, the late 1970s. Puerto Rican mobster Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) is shot at close range at a train station. As he lies between life and death, he remembers his most recent adventures in crime. His lawyer and good friend David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) helped to release Carlito from prison on a technicality after serving just 5 years of a 30 years sentence on narcotics charges. Carlito vows to go straight, but at every turn, his former associates and reputation drag him back towards a life of crime. He finds himself inadvertently involved in a shootout at a drug deal gone bad, before Kleinfeld helps him settle down to manage Club Paradise, a hangout where assorted criminals and wannabe mobsters flash their money.

Carlito reconnects with former girlfriend and dancer Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), but she is not sure that she wants to restart a relationship despite his dreams of relocating to a quiet life on a Caribbean island. At the club, Carlito is disgusted by a new generation of cocky gangsters, including Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo). Meanwhile District Attorney Bill Norwalk (James Rebhorn) is doing all he can to put Carlito back behind bars, while Kleinfeld develops a bad cocaine addiction and tangles with incarcerated mobster Tony T, sucking Carlito into further trouble.

Directed by Brian De Palma and based on books by Edwin Torres, there is not much wrong with Carlito's Way, but equally, not much that is new or original. This is a standard fare crime drama, delivered with an emphasis on quality and solid-enough performances. It is also several notches below what De Palma and Pacino offered in 1983's Scarface, and on the heels of excellent gangster films like De Palma's Untouchables and Scorsese's Goodfellas, Carlito's Way drops into a no-man's land where predictability meets retreads.

The narration adds little to the narrative, and continuously spoon-feeds Carlito's repeatedly stated desire to steer away from crime. But perhaps the film's weakest element is lack of character depth. Beyond many references to Carlito's "street" upbringing shaping his code of conduct, all the other characters remain flat representations of the girlfriend, the associates and the hoodlums. Even the supposedly central character of Kleinfeld is represented as a coked-up lawyer getting in over his head; the script offers nothing in the way of background for Sean Penn to sink his teeth into.

The action scenes are adequate without ever threatening to raise the pulse. De Palma frequently deploys pleasingly fluid long takes to capture high energy motion, giving the quicker scenes a sense of calm rationality. The main highlight comes early when Carlito stumbles into a seedy barber shop back room and contributes to a bloodbath. Otherwise, a prolonged subway chase teeters on the edge of comic overkill. The climax at Grand Central Station is good, but the film starts with Carlito gunned down, so much of the sting is removed from the tail.

Al Pacino does enough to maintain interest, staying away from excesses but ensuring sufficient intensity when needed. Penelope Ann Miller sticks to an almost spectral representation of the ideal girlfriend for a hoodlum, the dancer unable to find a break away from strip clubs much in the same way Carlito can't escape his destiny as a criminal. Viggo Mortensen appears in one scene as a formerly smooth criminal who has fallen onto hard times.

With a music score filled with mid to late 1970s disco tunes, Carlito's Way recreates an era of decadence and the thugs looking for a shortcut to riches. It's an unremarkable if competent reiteration of an often-told story.

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