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‘Carlito’s Way’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 12, 1993


Brian De Palma
Al Pacino;
Sean Penn;
Penelope Ann Miller;
John Leguizamo;
Ingrid Rogers;
Luis Guzman;
James Rebhorn;
Viggo Mortensen;
Richard Foronjy;
Adrian Pasdar
violence, drug use and profanity

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For quite some time during Brian De Palma's "Carlito's Way," we are satisfied to watch Al Pacino perform. In the role of Carlito Brigante, club owner, ex-con and former smack kingpin in New York's Spanish Harlem, this marvelous actor, with his Mephistophelean beard, glowering eyes and black leather coat, looks smashingly world-weary. Mesmerized by his energy, his lean, rugged features and his sharp, emphatic moves, we are happy just to watch him, without thinking much about the film's laggardly pace or its overworked themes.

Still, about halfway through, the overwhelming fact that the movie is a complete nothing becomes too much to ignore. Set during what may be the dying minutes of Carlito's life as he is being gurneyed into the emergency room, the film -- which was adapted by David Koepp ("Jurassic Park" and "Death Becomes Her") from two Edwin Torres novels -- flashes back through the key events and people in the character's recent past, emphasizing in particular the time since he was released from a five-year prison term.

De Palma has said that "Carlito's Way" is simply a "big romantic gangster picture," and with Steven Burum's dramatic cinematography and Richard Sylbert's intensely colorful production design it certainly looks like a big-bucks Hollywood thriller. In truth, though, this is far odder and vaguer and far less satisfying than that. Fresh out of jail, Carlito is determined to stay out of trouble. When his old pals in the business offer him a piece of their action, he tells them he's retired.

And everybody laughs. "Sure, pal, you're retired and I'm the pope."

In fact, Carlito is dead serious. He wants out. But as fate would have it, he can't escape. Though he struggles to stay clean, he keeps being pulled back into his life of crime. His lawyer, Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), is in trouble with the mob, and because he got Carlito out of prison, Carlito owes him and is forced to ride shotgun on a jailbreak from Riker's Island by an Italian gangster.

At this point the resemblance here between Carlito and the Michael Corleone character he played in the "Godfather" films is so powerful that the dramatic spell is broken. You can't help but think, "Haven't I been here before?" Just about everything in "Carlito's Way" feels secondhand. Pacino and De Palma had worked together before, on "Scarface," and there are echoes of that performance in Pacino's work here, as well as familiar notes from "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Serpico."

Pacino is a terrific actor, but he has one flaw -- he's a bust with accents. And his Puerto Rican-accented English here is all over the map, sounding variously like a genteel Southerner or a Northern hipster or even at times like the bellowing character he played in "Scent of a Woman."

Added to that, the film is all portent and no punch. For what seems like forever, De Palma sets his trap, raising the level of suspense with his slow, methodical camera movements, but after a while you begin to wonder what all the fuss is about. Though Carlito stands at a life-and-death crossroad, De Palma seems detached and unmoved, as if he were more interested in sustaining his cold, impassive tone than in his character's dilemma.

De Palma's direction is alert but dispirited, and certainly for us there is a sense of drudgery in having to observe this gifted filmmaker run through his tired bag of tricks. Watching "Carlito's Way," all you can think is, "Brian, why aren't you over this gangsters and guns and blood stuff yet?"

As for the supporting cast, Sean Penn is immensely watchable as Carlito's pain-in-the-butt lawyer. And Penelope Ann Miller is convincing (if not a tad superfluous) playing against type as a stripper with whom Carlito wants to share his life's dream. All Carlito needs is $75,000 and he can start a peaceful, normal life as the owner of a car wash in Phoenix. And from the money he's stashed away, he's almost there.

But no one in the movies is more fatalistic than De Palma. And though he gets our hopes up, a cruel twist always seems just around the corner. Business as usual.

"Carlito's Way" is rated R for violence, drug use and profanity.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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