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.