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Carlito's Way Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 January 2008

ImageIn “Carlito’s Way,” actor Al Pacino, director Brian De Palma, and producer Martin Bergman reunited for the first time since making their classic film “Scarface (1983).” Returning to the gangster genre, something De Palma was reticent to do, and using similar story elements brings inevitable comparisons between the two projects although “Carlito’s Way” comes up short on its own due to its mediocre and illogical script.

Two novels by Edwin Torres, “Carlito’s Way and “After Hours,” are the source materials for the film. The first of the rise of Carlito Brigante, a Puerto Rican gangster from the streets of Spanish Harlem, who works his way up to kingpin of the heroin trade, and his eventual arrest and conviction for 30 years. The second novel, from which the film’s story is primarily taken, shows Carlito’s life after an early release from prison and his attempts to stay on the straight and narrow. The title of the first book was used as the film’s title to avoid confusion with Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” (1985).

“Carlito’s Way” opens in black and white with Carlito being shot in a train station. As he is wheeled out, the gurney catches on a crack in the cement, allowing him to flashback on his recent life. The year is 1975 and the movie switches to color. Carlito’s lawyer, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), has gotten his client’s sentence overturned on appeal due to illegal wiretaps being used in the arrest. Given a second chance, Carlito decides to go straight. His plan is to move to the Bahamas and invest in a car rental place, but he needs to save up $75,000. Unfortunately, fate has other plans for Carlito, and much like another character played by Pacino, Michael Corleone in “Godfather III,” whenever he thinks he’s out he gets pulled right back in. Even simple dinner plans go awry. Carlito is heading to his sister’s house for dinner. Her son, Guajiro (John Agustin Ortiz), picks up Carlito, but he’s a courier for a drug dealer and needs to drop off some cash. Plus, he wants to bring by his uncle, a local folk hero, to impress his friends. Carlito is wary, but concedes. The drop-off is a pool hall and immediately Carlito’s instincts kick into gear. He senses the situation isn’t right. These aren’t Guajiro’s friends, but Carlito is able to save only himself.

To earn a living, Carlito runs a club in which Kleinfeld is a partner. Carlito brings in some old people from the neighborhood whom he trusts like Pachanga (Luis Guzman). At the club, he meets up-and-comer Benny Blanco from the Bronx (John Leguizamo). Benny is a big shot and is used to having everyone at his bidding. Carlito sees himself in Benny and doesn’t like it one bit. Carlito constantly insults and disrespects Benny. One night after Kleinfeld has taken Benny’s gal Steffie (Ingrid Rogers), Benny tries to get her back to save face, but a coked-up Kleinfeld whips out a gun, causing many other people to do the same. Carlito’s men roughly escort Benny out of the club. Benny informs Carlito if they ever meet again he will kill him. Back in the day, Carlito would have Benny killed and buried, but he changes his mind even though he knows it’s a mistake and shows weakness because he doesn’t want to make the same mistakes from his past.

An old friend named Lalin, played by the obviously un-Hispanic Viggo Mortensen, comes to visit Carlito. He is now in a wheelchair, but unlike Carlito hasn’t moved on. He keeps talking about the old days and wants in on the action, but Carlito repeatedly tells him he’s gone legit. Lalin keeps on and Carlito discovers he’s wearing a wire. Lalin was sent by the D.A. looking to send Carlito back to jail.

Carlito runs into Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), an old flame he broke up with just before he went to jail, because 30 years was a long and unrealistic time to wait. She trains as a dancer but works at a gentleman’s club (for those about to head to MrSkin.com you can see her at 01:00:00 for 38 seconds and 01:19:00 for 43 second). She acts resistant, but is still very interested and they resume their passionate relationship.

Meanwhile, Kleinfeld gets in way over is head. His coke addiction is pretty bad, which affects all his thinking. One of his client’s is Tony Taglialucci (Frank Minucci), a mob boss. Tony gave Kleinfeld one million dollars to pay off an informant, but the money was never received and Tony was convicted. Kleinfeld denies it, but Tony doesn’t believe him, although why he should trust the word of a guy ratting him out isn’t clear. To set things right, Kleinfeld has to help Tony escape from Riker’s Island by picking him up in the river; otherwise, a price is going to be put on Kleinfeld’s head. Kleinfeld asks Carlito to accompany him on the boat, and since Carlito feels indebted to Kleinfeld for getting him out of jail, he agrees against Gail’s wishes and his own better judgment. One of Tony’s sons accompanies them. At the rendezvous point, everything is going smoothly until Kleinfeld decides he can’t trust the boss and kills him and his son.

When Gail informs Carlito she’s pregnant, combined with other recent events, the news reinforces and hastens Carlito’s need to get out of town. Before he can set his plan in motion, the D.A. (James Rebhorn) brings Carlito in to talk, but he’s not the one in trouble. It turns out the D.A. is after someone involved with Carlito’s club, someone who gave the D.A. false information that led to Lalin wearing the wire. Carlito refuses even though they offer protection from the mob. The D.A. knows Carlito was involved and tells him that an attack has left Kleinfeld hospitalized. How anyone knows Carlito was on the boat is a mystery since Tony’s son was surprised to see him that night.

Carlito makes plans with Gail to take a train to Florida and then head the Bahamas, but when he goes to his club to get money, a few mobsters are waiting for him. A chase ensues that runs through Grand Central Station. When the film comes to the set piece from the opening, the viewer knows the story is about to end and how, leaving the revelation, for those not paying attention, of Carlito’s killer.

“Carlito’s Way” is clichéd throughout. We’ve seen these characters, these scenes, done before and done better, including in the talent’s previous work. Carlito could just as easily have been Tony Montana if he had gone to jail instead of being killed. There’s nothing that stands out in this movie. No cool dialogue to quote with your friends, no captivating sequences of acting or action keeping the viewer from turning his attention away. The hair team gets low marks for the inconsistent fluctuations in the thickness of Carlito’s beard.

I was concerned about the video quality because when the film opened up, the black and white sequence had dirt and scratches in it. Once the film flashbacked to color, I didn’t notice those imperfections. The colors are very vibrant, especially the club sequences, and there’s good use of it in the production design (Richard Sylbert). Carlito stands out because he always wears black. In the pool hall scene, all the walls are a bright red, creating a hellish appearance.

The audio was good, but didn’t have a lot to do. There were a few gunshots in some of the action sequences, but nothing elaborate. The best part of the film was the brilliant score by Patrick Doyle. The music stands on its own.

The bonus features were used on the 2005 "Ultimate Edition" DVD. The best is “The Making of Carlito's Way,” a 34-minute documentary with De Palma, Torres, Bregman, screenwriter David Koepp and editor Bill Pankow as they discuss different aspects of bringing the story to life on the screen. They all have a much higher opinion of the film than it deserves. I was surprised Pacino and Penn didn’t take part.

The oddest feature is “Brian De Palma on Carlito's Way.” He complains about what little Internet film critics know, but provides no examples. He then chastises current filmmakers for only watching movies and television and not having experienced life. He says their movies are just cut-and-paste of their favorite moments from what they’ve seen before. Again, he doesn’t name names, although it’s obvious he means Tarantino and his ilk, but it’s awfully ironic hearing this come from De Palma who has made a career cribbing from Hitchcock and who recreated the “Odessa steps” sequence from “Battleship Potemkin in his film “The Untouchables.”

“Carlito’s Way” is not a complete waste of time, but is certainly not a must-see. The film is illogical, from unbelievable decisions made by the characters to plot points that make no sense when given any thought. There are too many better movies in the gangster genre alone that deserve to be watched before this film.

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