Pacino Goes Straight from the Penn
10 years after the united to give us "Scarface", one of the most popular gangster movies in cinema's history, Brian De Palma and Al Pacino reunited to give us another gangster style movie with "Carlito's Way". But "Carlito's Way" is not just the tale of the rise and fall of a gangster, it is the tale of a former drug dealing kingpin who having spent time inside wants to go straight but finds his notoriety as a killer and a criminal as well as his friends continually haunting him. It's a good idea in some ways similar to those old westerns where a gunfighter wanted to turn his back on his killing ways, but it is also a movie which is overlong, drawn out when being snappier would have helped. And to be honest coming the year after Pacino delighted audiences with "Scent of a Woman" it was always going to have a lot to live up to.
Having just been released from prison after 5 years when evidence in the original case proves weak, former drug king pin Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino - Glengarry Glen Ross) vows he is a changed man and plans to go straight. And Carlito means it as he tries to earn $75,000 so that he can start a new life in the Bahamas for himself and Gail (Penelope Ann Miller - Chaplin), the woman he loves and trusts. But despite determined to keep his nose clean his notoriety as a dealer and a killer is always there haunting him as he agrees to run a night club for his friend and lawyer David Klienfeld (Sean Penn - Fast Times at Ridgemont High) edging him ever closer to his old ways.
"Carlito's Way" is one of those movies which start at the end as we watch Carlito being shot and falling into the arms of a woman before then jumping back to the start as we watch him in court and being given the news that he is being released from prison. The trouble is that it didn't need to do this, the journey of Carlito trying to go straight in a world of criminals is sufficient to keep us interested and to be honest you forget that this story is building up to the shooting. To be fair there is a reason why De Palma chose to do this but for me it is not a strong enough reason and in many ways going straight to the court case would have been just effective.
What makes the journey of Carlito sufficient is that in many ways it is a twist on what you would expect with Carlito trying to go straight having once been a major player in the drugs business. And as already mentioned it has a similarity to those old westerns where we watch a gunfighter trying to turn his back on a life of killing only for his notoriety and those wanting to make a name for themselves off of him haunting him. It gives this criminal thriller a different angle whilst still having that gangster familiarity about it as we watch various criminal types trying to draw Carlito back into his old ways.
And adding to this storyline we also have the relationships from Carlito being in love with Gail about the only person he really trusts through to his friendship with his lawyer David Klienfeld. It is the friendship with Klienfeld which is the catalyst for the main storyline as he feels a loyalty to the man who got him out of prison despite being aware that Klienfeld is not only getting a bit full of himself but also getting into deep water with bigger criminals and dodgy deals. It allows the story of Carlito and how despite trying to go straight ending up in big trouble to make sense.
But the thing about "Carlito's Way" is that it is long, not actually that long at 144 minutes but longer than the story needs to be. And the trouble is that whilst Brian De Palma does a nice job of embellishing the story with stylish camera work and effective use of black & white shots he seems reluctant to chop anything out. There are scenes which just seem to go on too long, many of which don't really tell the story just bridge the gap between two scenes. It causes the story at times to lumber along never going anywhere fast when being snappier would have certainly helped.
As for acting well when you consider that Al Pacino's previous movie was the stunning "Scent of a Woman" this feels like a bit of a let down. But there is in fact nothing wrong with Pacino's performance as Carlito, he gets across the confliction of trying to keep his nose clean whilst so many want to cause trouble for him, it's just not as powerful a performance as we watched as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade. And to be honest Pacino shares "Carlito's Way" with an actor who isn't afraid of delivering big performances in the company of acting giants and as such Sean Penn as David Klienfeld steals many a scene. In fact he grabs your attention immediately because he is unrecognizable as Klienfeld but it's more than a look, he creates this character that is in over his head making him weasely yet naive and full of nervous bravado. The only let down is the character of Gail and has nothing to do with Penelope Ann Miller's performance because she does a good job, it's just as a character who hangs out with a known criminal as well as dancing in a strip joint Gail is just too nice to be believable.
What this all boils down to is that "Carlito's Way" is in fact a good movie and an interesting twist on your normal criminal thrillers but it suffers not only because it is too long but because it opens itself up for comparison to other movies. And as such it's not as good as "Scarface" and Pacino's performance is not as powerful as in "A Scent of a Woman" but judged on its own merits it works.