Even the most law-abiding person may have the guilty pleasure of imaging life as a ruthless mobster. Such gangster a person lives only by the code of the streets, taking whatever he wants whether it be drugs, money or women.
Almost as long as the cinema has been an art form the gangster flick has for this reason been at the top of favorite film lists everywhere. In 1993 director Brian De Palma threw into the fray with Carlitos Way.
Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) grew up as a Puerto Rican on the mean streets of New York’s Spanish Harlem. He was the go to man before his thirty-year incarceration for dealing drugs.
After only five years his lawyer David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) gets Carlito off on a legal technicality. Carlito returns to the old neighborhood determined to go straight, hoping to escape his old life by opening a car agency in the Bahamas, leaving New York with his girlfriend Gail (Penelope Ann Miller).
Although she was trained in ballet she now gets by working as a stripper in a local bar. Carlito sees the rental agency not only as his salvation but also a way to save Gail.
Since most banks are somewhat reluctant to loan start up money to an ex con Carlito is forced to take a job at a popular night club where he comes into contact with the people he should try to avoid.
One of these introduces himself as "Benny Blanco from the Bronx" (John Leguizamo). He has heard stories of the great Carlito Brigante most of his life. Carlito sees in Bennie the same headstrong player that he once was and draws Carlito back towards a return to crime.
Soon, Carlito is in a gun fight when a drug deal goes bad, facing a pile of dead bodies and a rather large sum of cash just sitting there he listens for a moment to the approaching police sirens, grabs the cash and gets out of there as fast as he possible can.
Instead of giving in to old ways he decides to not use the money for illicit purposes but to save it to finance his dream. In order to raise the rest of the cash he takes a job managing a nightclub for his cokehead lawyer Kleinfeld and some criminal types. Naturally, this club is a front to clean dirty money and like it or not Carlito is back in the crime business.
While Carlitos Way is not original in its theme or even its execution (no pun intended), Carlitos Way does stand on its own mostly due to the manner the story is told.
The theme of the mobster seeking redemption and a fresh life was done far better in the Godfather Part Two, but here instead of a rich mob boss (ironically both played by Pacino) it is from the viewpoint of a more common man, one more identifiable by the audience.
Carlito exits prison initially a changed man. While superficially it may appear that circumstances drew Carlito back into a life of crime but after all, he did place himself back in the same situations that lead him to crime in the first place. While his motives may be good, perhaps even noble, he went back to the same places and expected a different outcome.
This in itself is the tragedy of Carlito, a man doomed to repeat his mistakes no matter what he wants out of life. This life gone wrong motif is repeated with Gail. She had trained for classical dance she winds up making a meager living dancing topless in a cheap go-go bar.
Dreams may be wonderful but in Carlitos Way they are simply there to be dashed to pieces. The romance is vital to Carlitos Way but gets pushed to a secondary role by the amount of violence present. It does permit Carlito to show a more emotional side in counter point to the violence that his is aptly capable of.
It is rare that a film is able to get a cast such as is found in Carlitos Way. If you want someone to play the over the top mobster you cannot get an actor better than Al Pacino. He defined this type of role and no one has ever done it better.
Where most actors would have given a one-dimensional performance here Pacino lives the role, giving life to Carlito as a fully developed albeit flawed human being. It is interesting to contrast his performance here with his roles in Scarface and Godfather. His talent is such that he can breathe new life into a role that on the surface seems pretty much the same as he has done before.
Sean Penn was born to play sleazy, over the top characters. His portrayal of Kleinfeld is a masterpiece. He gleefully takes in line after line of cocaine while finding legal loopholes for his criminal clients and helping them further their illegal activities. Penn plays him as completely amoral, yet we are drawn to watch this most unsympathetic character.
With her doe like eyes Penelope Ann Miller seems anachronistic in Carlitos Way. She represents innocence defiled in Carlitos Way and does an excellent job to achieve this end.
As always John Leguizamo is great fun to watch. He has the air of a street-smart kid about him and plays off it very well. He is rapidly becoming a force among actors.
Keep an eye out for an appearance by another great character actor, Luis Guzmán. He has a small but well-done role here.
In the course of any discussion concerning off beat and often violent films one director’s name is certain to come up, Brian De Palma. From his classic such as The Untouchables to his remake of Scarface, De Palma has taken film to new directions even though many would point out his habit of reusing story lines done previously by others.
For the most part Carlitos Way can be counted among his better films although it does manifest some flaws. For one thing the pacing does drag in places. A little editing would have preserved the content while making Carlitos Way move along better.
He doesn’t utilize the character of Gail properly, the romance seems to exist only to give some rest between the action scenes yet the whole relationship between Carlito and Gail is important to understand Carlitos character. Instead Gail seems to server little more than to introduce a little nudity in the mix.
What saves Carlitos Way is the style that De Palma brings in. Little touches such as seeing through the reflection in Carlitos shades are great. While many directors use style instead of substance De Palma manages to combine the two.
With the release of Carlitos Way Universal has made full amends for the travesty they released of this film back in 1998. They corrected every complaint fans have made about that edition.
While the original Carlitos Way DVD release was non anamorphic this one sports a full 2.35:1 new anamorphic transfer. The color balance is much improved as well. The colors are realist and vibrant jumping off the screen.
Even the Dolby 5.1 audio track has been redone to bring more life to the rear speakers and quite a work out for the sub woofer as well. There is also an excellent DTS track that blows even this Dolby 5.1 track away.
There are several very worthwhile extras also included. There are all new deleted scenes that show a little more about the characters. Then there is a discussion by De Palma where he goes into details about all that had to be done to bring Carlitos Way to the screen.
Rounding things out are interviews with the cast members allowing them to recall their experiences on the set.
Even if you have the previous release, pack that away and experience Carlitos Way, as it should be.
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