Running time: 2h 24min
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by Edwin Torres (novels), David Koepp (screenplay)
Starring Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller
Carlito’s Way is a flawed, but still very good classic crime/gangster film from a competent crew of filmmakers. The story centers around a former criminal’s attempt at trying to change his ways and escape his past. Will he succeed and escape into the sunset or not? In the opening of the movie, which shows the very end, we find out right away that he most likely does not, having just been shot. Carlito’s Way is a tragic tale of crime with film noir elements, which seems to sometimes struggle with the tone it’s going for – at times it is serious, mature and nuanced, but at others it undermines this by presenting itself as just flippant entertainment.
Ten years before Carlito’s Way, director De Palma and star Al Pacino made Scarface (1983), which has since become a classic of the crime/mafia genre. Scarface, which is a remake of a film by the same title from 1932, is an over the top, larger than life gangster flick. It has had a major influence on pop culture since its release; showing its legacy in cinema and, for example, the Grand Theft Auto game series. For those unaware, Scarface is a violent but cartoony tale of a Cuban criminal’s rise to power and his subsequent fall, set in the underworld and nightclubs of 1980s Miami. It is almost impossible to review Carlito’s Way without at least mentioning Scarface; the major players behind both films are the same, and both movies are in the same genre. Additionally, as in Scarface, drugs are a major part of the story and world of Carlito’s Way. Thus it could be said that Carlito’s Way is a natural continuation of Scarface. One difference between the two films is the location it is set in; Scarface takes place in Miami during the 1980s, while Carlito’s setting is 1975 New York.
In Carlito’s Way, Al Pacino’s character, former drug lord Carlito Brigante, has just been released from prison. The opening court room scene of the film is truly fantastic, and possibly the best scene of the entire film. In a hilarious monologue Brigante claims to be a changed man, a man who no longer wishes to pursue a life of crime. Perhaps surprisingly, this is not false, and it is one of the major ways in which Carlito’s Way differs from Scarface. Carlito is a tale of a man trying to escape his past – instead of violently trying to carve his destiny through cocaine and blood like in Scarface.
During the course of the film Pacino narrates the major events and his thoughts about them, which is one area where the film succeeds in creating a sombre tone. The writing is quite good in these segments. Carlito’s Way is based on two books, and it shows especially in these moments.
Sean Penn plays Carlito’s corrupt Jewish lawyer/best friend, who is starting to lose his grasp on reality, and who is really not the best influence for a man who is trying to not get sucked back into the world of crime. While Penn’s character feels like quite an outrageous caricature at times, he plays the part well. Penelope Ann Miller plays Carlito’s girlfriend, and I have no complaints about her acting. The character works well enough as the love interest and further motivation for escape.
Carlito’s Way is a film that seems to take itself far more seriously than its predecessor Scarface did. In part, this does work, but some of the characters feel too much like complete cartoon caricatures to fit in with the slightly more meaningful, mature tone the film is apparently going for. The movie relies heavily on the performances of its two leads, Pacino and Penn, who are given the most screentime and substance. The minor characters of the story are mostly just crude obstacles blocking Carlito’s gradual escape from his former life. A particularly glaring example of this is the young gangster Benny Blanco (from the Bronx), who is played by John Leguizamo. I know that the character is supposed to be an annoying young punk who is just begging to get himself killed, but Leguizamo’s performance and the script does not make me take him seriously at all (which, granted, might be the whole point – Carlito himself also underestimates the guy). This might be my own personal bias, but this character just did not work for me at all. I think another actor might have pulled it off better.
At times the events depicted stretch the limits of one’s suspension of disbelief. This coupled with the aforementioned problems I have with the minor characters means that the end result is flawed. Still, despite the flaws, Carlito is a very good film, a definite classic of the genre, absolutely worth checking out if one has not already seen it. For the most part the film has not aged poorly, and it remains, to me at least, a solid escapade which I might still rewatch in the future.
It should be noted that I have not read the books, so I do not know how faithful of an adaptation Carlito’s Way really is. Apparently, the events depicted, in the books at least, are something that the writer (a former New York judge of Puerto Rican descent) claims to be based on events that he himself has knowledge of. So perhaps my estimation of some of the more unbelievable parts of the film and its characters is unjust.
In my opinion, even though Carlito’s Way tries to be more mature and serious than Scarface, and partly succeeds in this endeavour, the film is best viewed with the same lens as Scarface – as entertainment. It is not high art, it is just a well-made, entertaining gangster movie. Even if De Palma, Pacino, and producer Martin Bregman might not have completely succeeded in their endeauvour to make something more mature than Scarface, they should be applauded for the effort. Or that is my take on it, at least. Pacino and Penn truly carry this film, and leave everyone else (save, perhaps, Miller) far far behind in the dust – not that the other actors had that much to work with.
The beginning court room scene and the thrilling ending are the highlights of Carlito’s Way, where the middle chunk of the film feels at times a bit unnecessary or lackluster in comparison, perhaps. Carlito’s Way, to me, is not as good, enjoyable, or as rewatchable as Scarface, but it is still a very good film, still worth watching in 2021.
Rating: 7.5 / 10
Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: at least 3
Would I want to rewatch it? Probably at some point in the distant future