Director-Brian De Palma
Starring-Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller
Scott’s Review #1,224
Reviewed January 29, 2022
Brian De Palma would be firmly planted in my Top 10 favorite directors of all time- maybe even the Top 5. His daring and juicy Dressed to Kill (1980), and horrific Carrie (1976) is still visually mesmerizing to me.
Carlito’s Way (1993) takes De Palma into New York mobster territory similar in vein to his 1983 disappointment Scarface (1983). Both star Al Pacino.
The latter is set in Miami while the former offers many reminders of its New York City setting like street signs and other exterior trimmings of the Big Apple, especially in Spanish Harlem. Sequences also occur on Long Island, New York, and Rikers Island prison.
The film is based on two like novels written in the 1970s when the events in the film are supposed to be set. This doesn’t work as well as you might think but more about that later.
Carlito’s Way itself is a solid mobster film that borrows from many others including Scarface, The Godfather (1972), and Goodfellas (1990). If I were to take ten mobster films it might get lost somewhere in the middle.
But it’s still an above-average watch and sprinkles pleasant De Palma familiarities like slow-motion dreamlike sequences and a terrific chase through the subway and Grand Central Station that will bring a smile to Dressed to Kill fans.
It’s just not one of the best Brian De Palma films nor one of the best mobster films.
Released on a technicality after years in prison, Carlito Brigante (Pacino) swears to give up his criminal ways, but it’s not long before the ex-con is sucked back into the New York City underworld thanks to his shady lawyer and friend Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn).
All he wants to do is save enough money to leave town and retire in paradise.
Carlito reconnects with his aspiring actress/dancer girlfriend, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) while young and dangerous gangster Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo) plots revenge on Carlito and Kleinfeld after being slighted.
Kleinfeld has also stolen money from a dangerous convict so that’s an added stressor for both him and Carlito.
The time is very odd. It’s supposed to be the 1970s as the musical score suggests as disco party music blasts during club scenes. The clothes and hairstyles somewhat align but there is a strange 1980s feel which is even stranger given the film was shot in the 1990s.
The chemistry between Pacino and Miller is okay but nothing terrific either although it grows during the film. At first, I wondered what they saw in one another but was slowly won over by the pair. By the end, I was rooting for them to ride off into paradise together.
The best part of Carlito’s Way is the final thirty minutes or so. On the run from the bad guys, Carlito and Gail decide to meet on a late-night train bound for Florida. There, they will forget their troubles and live happily ever after on the beach.
Oh, and by the way, Gail is now pregnant.
De Palma, as he usually does, creates a dazzling climax. I was mesmerized by the cat and mouse chase scenes and what Grand Central looked like in the early 1990s when the film was shot. And there’s also the terrific running from subway car to subway car chase scene just like in Dressed to Kill.
As an aside, Pacino who is Italian is playing a Puerto Rican character. One character comments that Carlito could almost pass for an Italian. Given Pacino’s heritage in the very Italian Godfather films, this is an anecdote that made me chuckle.
Penn and Pacino give it their all and craft unusual characters, especially Penn, and it’s a delight seeing great actors play off of one another.
Carlito’s Way (1993) has some hits and some misses and borrows heavily from similar films including De Palma’s films. This too often makes it become a comparison film rather than containing its own identity.