Friday, March 18, 2011

Carlito's Way (1993)

Depending on whom you talk to, Brian DePalma's Carlito's Way is either an old favorite or an obscurity. Unlike star Al Pacino's other crime films, this one is often overlooked--at the least, it seems to have dropped out of basic cable rotation. But in some ways it's one of DePalma's best movies--and definitely among its stars' (Pacino and Sean Penn) best performances. Penn especially has a ball immersing himself in his red-afro'd '70s coked-up mob lawyer. And Pacino drops the surreal Latin accent of DePalma's Scarface and wears his jet-black hair and beard as easily as the soft but precise and almost melancholy cadences of his Puerto Rican ex-con/neighborhood legend. Its Godfather III-ish plot--a crime world "pulls him back in"--provides many opportunities for Pacino to add layers to his character--and allows the movie to move into Penn's world, where he walks the highwire without a net, clutching Carlito's sleeve the whole time.

Along the way, DePalma allows himself some directorial flourishes, but he is surprisingly restrained: For better or worse, this picture eschews the controlled hysteria of his earlier thrillers--or later ones such as Snake Eyes (1998) and Femme Fatale (2002)--most of them a lot of fun; but what makes Carlito's Way memorable is the actors', not the director's, flourishes. And the mood of the picture tones things down: Carlito's "way" is old school--and, to the ferocious young guns he has to deal with, old hat. His neighborhood is gone, and every favor received feels like a threat, while every favor given, as Carlito puts it, "gonna kill you faster than a bullet."

Don't get me wrong; this is not a "quiet" picture, not with this bunch. It can be garish and brutal, fast and funny (Carlito in the courtroom is a hoot--and Penn just doesn't stop being a hilarious, dangerous nebbish)--and the rest of the cast pitches in as well: Wait for Viggo Mortensen as a wheelchair-bound, miserable rat, not to mention John Leguizamo's balls-out up-n-comer, Benny Blanco, while Luis Guzman, as usual, is solid as a stocky rock. All in all, despite its two-plus hours, Carlito's Way keeps moving, almost episodic (like the more frenetic Scarface), but nonetheless pushed forward by Carlito's efforts to step back from his own life and live.

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