Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 6, 2016)
Apparently whenever director Brian De Palma and actor Al Pacino work together, they create flicks with lasting appeal that don’t do well during their original release. Such was the case with 1983’s Scarface. It failed to attract a great audience back then but gradually became seen as a gangster classic, a factor helped by the masses of rappers who adored it.
1993’s Carlito’s Way doesn’t enjoy the fame of Scarface, but it’s nonetheless managed to become more popular than its initial lackluster theatrical one would make one believe. The flick pretty much tanked back then, and I don’t recall that it received many positive critical notices. However, it maintained a decent following – at least enough for Universal to bankroll a 2005 direct-to-video prequel.
Way starts with its ending, as it introduces us to Carlito Brigante (Pacino) right after someone shoots and seriously injures him. We then flash back and see events from 1975.
Carlito gets out of jail after five years of a 30-year sentence. This occurs because his slick lawyer David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) wins an appeal based on a technicality; DA Norwalk (James Rebhorn) used some shady tactics during the original investigation.
A former big-shot criminal, Carlito claims he plans to go straight. He just wants to raise $75,000 so he can move to the Bahamas and invest in a buddy’s car rental agency. No one believes this claim, though, and they constantly try to re-involve Carlito in illicit activities. He resists but finds his past tough to avoid.
Kleinfeld encourages Carlito to become the manager of his buddy Saso’s (Jorge Porcel) nightclub. After Carlito becomes unwittingly involved in a violent incident, he agrees and sees this as a way to raise his $75,000.
This goes fairly well and even allows Carlito to re-encounter his old love, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller). He dumped her when he went to jail to protect himself, as he felt he’d worry too much about her if they stayed a couple. Carlito clearly wants to reignite that relationship, but since he broke her heart, Gail views matters warily.
Carlito’s criminal past continues to haunt him, but an unusual source attempts to get him back into illegal activities. Kleinfeld stole a million bucks from gangster client Tony Taglialucci (Frank Minucci) and the crook’s not happy about this.
To repay the debt, Tony insists that Kleinfeld help break him out of Ryker’s Island. Out of his league, Kleinfeld pesters Carlito to help, an idea the loyal Brigante grudgingly accepts. The rest of the movie follows Carlito’s relationships and attempts to reach his goals.
Since Way was based on novels by Edwin Torres, I know it had no connection to 1990’s much-maligned Godfather Part III. However, it’s easy to see a link since the story of Way feels like it’s a riff on the earlier flick’s most famous line: “Just when I thought that I was out they pull me back in!”
That quote essentially sums up the plot to Way. Although this makes the movie follow a fairly predictable path, I don’t mind since it brings depth unusual for a gangster movie.
Most of these genre efforts go the Scarface route to look after the violent rise to power of those involved. Way takes the opposite road to look at someone who really does want to reform himself but finds it tough to avoid the mistakes of his past.
Carlito does provide an unusually deep character for this kind of film. He still aspires to succeed and seems somewhat resigned to the fact that he’ll likely need to resort to some illegal methods along the way. However, he truly appears to aspire to get out of the scene; it’s not lip service, and his past weighs on him much more than expected.
As the lead role, Pacino is a mixed bag, though usually good. On one hand, he shows too much of the bluster that mars many of his modern performances. This trend is exemplified by his work in Scent of a Woman, a turn notable for his loud “hoo-ah!” exclamations. There’s too much aggressive Scent of a Woman in Pacino’s performance and not enough of the subtlety that he brought out in earlier flicks like The Godfather.
On the other hand, Pacino demonstrates a presence that serves the role well. For all his hamminess, there’s an authority and charisma Pacino emanates that help make Carlito much more believable than I otherwise might expect. When the actor backs off from his bluster, he seems eminently easy to accept in the role, as he really looks the part.
Pacino also depicts Carlito’s weariness well. Again, his non-verbal side works best. He conveys a lot with little looks and gestures. Despite his occasional bluster, Pacino manages to work fairly well in the lead part.
While the plot elements that involve Gail become necessary in the end, they often feel somewhat artificial. For much of the movie, they come across as grafted on, and they don’t mesh well with the rest of the tale. By the end, they add up to a little more, but I still think they act more as plot devices than anything else.
Carlito’s Way doesn’t serve as a great gangster movie, but it’s more than serviceable. It aspires to be something a little different, and despite some misfires, it usually succeeds. It works well as a nice change of pace.