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‘Carlito’s Way’

By Desson Howe
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
Under 17 restricted

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Brian de Palma's worst films have annoying bouts of brilliance -- annoying because you can't completely dismiss them. Yet even his best works are marred, as if the director can't handle the artistic altitude.

"Carlito's Way," adapted from two Edwin Torres novels ("Carlito's Way" and "After Hours"), sits somewhere in the middle. At times, this story about a Puerto Rican ex-con (Al Pacino) who's trying to make good in a world gone wrong is assured and brilliant. At other times, it loses the Way.

After five years in the pen, Pacino is released in 1975 on a fortuitous technicality -- thanks to the efforts of his tenacious lawyer, Sean Penn. The underworld Pacino used to know is long gone. Now, Spanish Harlem is overrun by young punks.

The former drug dealer decides to go for a legal dream this time: To reunite with his stripper girlfriend (Penelope Ann Miller), settle in the Bahamas and start a car rental agency. When Penn offers Pacino a job running his recently purchased nightclub, it seems like a legit way to go. Pacino plans to leave the club as soon as he earns the start-up cash.

But staying clean is impossible in this world, where strength is the only watchword and everyone's got a scheme. Pacino manages to stay out of trouble until Penn begs him for a favor, a harebrained, highly dangerous mission that could send him back up the river. Indebted to Penn, Pacino reluctantly agrees.

The best parts of "Carlito" are its cinematic set pieces. De Palma creates memorable tension during a drug-purchase scene in a pool hall, then later, in an extended pursuit scene in the subway and Grand Central Terminal, when Pacino tries to escape some very angry mobsters. Another plus: De Palma's trademark misogynism (in which he gets to skewer or stalk a beautiful woman) is refreshingly absent. Perhaps fatherhood and a second marriage has deepened his world view.

Despite explosive situations -- lives on the line, fidelity in a world of chaos and treachery -- this 140-minute melodrama is often slow and moribund. After making exhilarating headway though one scene, it flounders through another two. Many of these pacing problems can be thrown at the feet of screenwriter David Koepp, who has word-processed his share of dead spots in "Jurassic Park" and "Death Becomes Her."

Pacino has his moments but for the most part he's surprisingly underwhelming. He's a great actor but even I can do a better Puerto Rican accent. The production's biggest mistake is the casting of Miller. She's almost laughingly unbelievable as a cleancut WASP who strips by night and is involved with former heroin merchant Pacino. In her worst scene, she tearfully tells Pacino she doesn't want to see him in a body bag. Pacino listens, quietly seething, before smashing a bathroom mirror with his fist. It's unclear whether his character is upset or the actor can't take much more of this inept tirade.

Penn comes away with the best performance. Virtually unrecognizable in glasses and red, frizzy curls, he's wonderful scum, a coked-up yuppie gone over the edge. But below the attention-getting surface, there's no sense of humanity underneath. The day De Palma pulls away the masks from his characters, they'll start to breathe -- and so will his films.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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