Even by the notoriously undemanding standards of direct-to-vid spin-offs, "Carlito's Way: Rise to Power" is conspicuously underwhelming. Despite its tenuous ties to Brian De Palma's flashy and trashy 1993 crime drama, generic time-killer plays more like a graceless reprise of swaggering Blaxploitation era cliches and stereotypes.

Even by the notoriously undemanding standards of direct-to-vid spin-offs, “Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power” is conspicuously underwhelming. Despite its tenuous ties to Brian De Palma’s flashy and trashy 1993 crime drama, which showcased Al Pacino as a Puerto Rican drug lord who’s semi-determined to go straight, generic time-killer plays more like a graceless reprise of swaggering Blaxploitation era cliches and stereotypes. Item opened in limited theatrical situations day-and-date with DVD release, but it’s best suited for small-screen consumption by undemanding vid renters and cable subscribers.

Previous pic — inspired, like this one, by a series of novels by New York State Supreme Court Justice Edwin Torres — introed Carlito Brigante as cynical ex-con who’s reluctantly drawn back into his former business after early release from prison in the mid-1970s.

Vidpic written and directed by Michael Bregman (co-producer of 1993 original) is a prequel dramatizing earlier career of the title character, tracing his rise in the Spanish Harlem drug world through an unlikely but efficacious alliance with Earl (Mario Van Peebles), an African-American numbers runner, and Rocco (Michael Kelly), a mobbed-up Italian criminal.

Jay Hernandez has the thankless task of assuming the role previously played to the hilt by Pacino. Young actor makes a game effort, but he’s less than completely persuasive while tough-talking and smooth-moving. In his defense, it should be noted that he’s burdened with an abundance of snarl-worthy dialogue that often sounds cribbed from “The Great Book of Gangster Movie Bluster.” (Speaking to underlings, he warns: “Rule number one — touch the dope, get buried in a hole.”)

Despite interference by crooked cops (Giancarlo Esposito, Tony Cucci), old school Mafiosi (Burt Young, Dominic Lombardozzi) and a stylish but lethal Harlem crime boss named Hollywood Nicky (rapper Sean Combs, well-cast and convincing), the three comrades easily fulfill their ruthless ambitions.

Indeed, Carlito is scarcely sidetracked even when he’s near-fatally shot by the disapproving brother (Juan Carlos Hernandez) of his sexy main squeeze (Jaclyn DeSantis, whose brief but revealing love scene with Carlito pushes at limits of the R rating).

Half-hearted attempts to evoke early ’70s ambiance — references to Vietnam and Black Panthers, prominent display of 8-track tapes, etc. — only to serve to underscore pic’s similarities to Blaxploitation fables about upwardly mobile drug dealers. (Van Peebles looks and sounds as though he’s channeling Fred Williamson from latter’s “Black Caesar”/”Hell Up in Harlem” heyday.)

Running out of dramatic steam way before the half-way point, pic gets a jump-start in the final third with the welcome arrival of wild-eyed Luis Guzman in a scene-snatching turn as a coke-addled hit man.

Production values are par for routine vidpic fare.

Carlito's Way: Rise To Power

Direct-To-Video

Production

A Universal Home Video release of a Focus pictures presentation of a Martin Bregman/Gravesend production. Produced by Martin Bregman. Executive producers, Bo Dietl, Nicholas Raynes. Directed, written by Michael Bregman, based on the novel "Carlito's Way" by Edwin Torres.

Crew

Camera (color), Adam Holender; editor; David Ray; music, Joe Delia; music supervisor, Janice Ginsberg; production designer, Dan Leigh; costume designer, Sandra Hernandez; sound (Dolby Digital), Michael Barosy; assistant director, David Wechsler. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, Oct. 4, 2005. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Carlito Brigante - Jay Hernandez Earl - Mario Van Peebles Nacho Reyes - Luis Guzman Rocco - Michael Kelly Hollywood Nicky - Sean Combs Little Jeff - Giancarlo Esposito Leticia - Jaclyn DeSantis Artie Sr. - Burt Young Reggie - Mtumbe Grant Sigfredo - Juan Carlos Hernandez Artie Jr. - Dominic Lombardozzi Big Jeff - Tony Cucci

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