Carlito’s Way (1993)
Release Date: November 12th, 1993 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Brian De Palma Actors: Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, John Leguizamo, Luis Guzman, James Rebhorn, Ingrid Rogers, Joseph Siravo, Viggo Mortensen, Richard Foronjy, Jorge Porcel, Frank Minucci, Adrian Pasdar, John Ortiz, Angel Salazar
can sense, but I can’t see.” In black-and-white and in slow-motion, “Carlito’s Way” opens with what appears to be the final moments of the titular role as he absorbs a couple of bullets at close range. A woman rushes to his side, a doctor barks orders, and the florescent lights of a train station ceiling are viewed from the perspective of a prostrate victim. Orchestral music also plays as the camera spins until it’s entirely inverted. But this credit sequence aims to establish an undeniable sense of artistry – of visual flair (with a single, full-color advertisement for a paradise vacation piercing the desaturated imagery), particularly as a poetic introduction to a sensationally brutish Puerto Rican gangster.
In New York City in 1975, Charles “Carlito” Brigante (Al Pacino) is finally released after five years of incarceration (of a 30-year sentence). Despite being a reputed assassin and a purveyor of narcotics, his indictment is dismissed on faulty evidence collection. Thanks in part to his longtime pal and defense attorney David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn, at his sleaziest best), Carlito is free at last, and heads straight to a nightclub to celebrate. There, he admits that his checkered past hasn’t gotten him the riches and success for which the extreme risks should have paid, and that one day, he dreams of gathering up $75,000 to buy into a car rental business in the Bahamas, run by a fellow former prisoner. As he puts it, people don’t die all that much in the car rental business.
Although he’s out of the life of crime, he still has plenty of connections, including Rolando (Al Israel), for whom he went to prison in the first place; Guajiro (John Ortiz), an overconfident kid still running drugs; and Pachanga (Luis Guzman), a guy quite familiar with the streets (and the barrio crowd). When Guajiro drops by a bar to do a quick buy, all hell breaks loose; Guajiro is murdered and Carlito is forced to shoot his way out. He doesn’t want to get mixed up in these scenarios, but they just seem to gravitate toward him – and his notorious reputation always seems to precede him. After old friend Saso (Jorge Porcel) needs to be bailed out of some hefty debts, Carlito decides to purchase a percentage of the man’s club to resurrect – and run – an honest business (using cash taken from the clash at the bar). But the town and its people (such as Benny Blanco from the Bronx [John Leguizamo]) are just rough enough that there’s surely no way for Carlito to escape the seedy underworld elements altogether.
Since director Brian De Palma is no stranger to graphic violence, it’s not long before a throat is cut, a face erupts with blood from gunfire, and a thug is thrown down a lofty flight of stairs. To balance it out is a rather amusing – if overly romanticized – relationship with ex-girlfriend Gail, played by Penelope Ann Miller. But even this momentary reverie from the unfriendly actuality is tarnished in its own way, as if one more component of the inseparable darkness of the gangster fantasy.
And, like in De Palma’s previous gangland epic “Scarface,” there are hints at revenge and betrayal and looming tragedy, though with an older, wizened Pacino, Carlito makes for a far more sympathetic antihero – one capable of that elusive notion of redemption. Instead of a downward-spiral of self-destruction, “Carlito’s Way” travels in the opposite direction, attempting to move the character up and away from the gangsterism that surrounds him. But his friends and associates are part of the problem, working to drag the hapless protagonist back into the mire.
In conjunction with the depravity and lowlife personas is a noirish voiceover narration by Carlito, which rarely chimes in with information that isn’t plainly obvious in action or even in spoken dialogue. In fact, its extraneous nature is a big detractor from the smoothness of the editing and narrative. Even so, there’s something undeniably enchanting about this specific underdog and his unforgiving plights; the pessimistic commentary on the excessive lifestyle and violent, knee-jerk reactions of mobsters; and the unnerving allure of criminality, complete with its fatalistic inability to allow for change in its subjects. The finale might be a bit overdone, circling back around to the introductory moments with a hair-raising chase, full of last-second coincidences and riveting misdirection that doesn’t quite match the rest of the picture. But Carlito’s sincerity, severity, and confidence – matched once again with the poetry of lavish tumult – are thoroughly engaging; he’s one of the most impressive in a line of ’90s gangster flick heavies.
– Mike Massie