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Carlito’s Way

"Carlito's Way" is a lively saga of the rise and fall of a Puerto Rican criminal, rich with irony and keen in its attention to detail. Handsomely made, expertly directed and colorfully acted, it should satisfy action buffs and slightly more sophisticated audiences. That adds up to solid commercial prospects at home and abroad that are just shy of blockbuster returns.

“Carlito’s Way” is a lively saga of the rise and fall of a Puerto Rican criminal, rich with irony and keen in its attention to detail. Handsomely made, expertly directed and colorfully acted, it should satisfy action buffs and slightly more sophisticated audiences. That adds up to solid commercial prospects at home and abroad that are just shy of blockbuster returns.

The surprise for many upon seeing the film is that it’s a throwback to the kind of ethnic gangster pics of the ’30s like “Scarface” with Paul Muni, and not rife with the modern social spin of the later “Scarface” made by “Carlito’s” principals. In that respect it’s a true reminder of the enduring vibrancy of the immigrant-crime-does-not-pay genre.

The saga is bookended by scenes of Carlito (Al Pacino) being rushed to the hospital after he’s shot at close range in a subway station. So, how did this particular fate befall him?

It’s 1975 and, after serving five years, Carlito has had his drug-related sentence reversed due to improper evidentiary procedures. He addresses the court and, in grand style, explains how he’s been rehabilitated and will not be going back to the street.

What we don’t know or suspect is that he means it; his cant sounds as if it’s all for show. But Carlito is a bit like Gregory Peck’s “Gunfighter,” savvy from experience, lucky to be alive and ready to move on gracefully.

The problem is that there’s no retirement plan in his former line of work. Throw in that everyone around him expects Carlito to continue where he left off five years earlier, and you begin to understand his frustration. His plan to save enough money to open a car rental agency in the Caribbean has his former associates practically doubled up with laughter.

Additionally, trouble follows him like an obedient lap dog. A car ride with a young cousin evolves into a bloody, botched drug deal. A favor for a friend threatens to become his death sentence. And on and on it goes.

The strength of David Koepp’s adaptation of two books by Manhattan judge Edwin Torres is a comic strain as unexpected and unpredictable as the hair-trigger personalities of its underworld figures. Carlito is continually placed into situations he honestly would rather avoid. He can rightfully say, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” but thankfully the sentiment remains tacit.

Eventually he agrees to manage a disco that’s a haunt of gangster high-rollers. Though meant to be his ticket out of that environment, it proves to be the means to his end. He lives by the credo “You got no friends in this business,” but he has become sentimental, and it’s a fatal flaw.

Pacino plays the title role with broad strokes. It’s an audience-pleasing perf of grand gestures, posturing and humor. The bigness of his interpretation takes the film out of the specific and realistic into an almost mythic arena.

Sean Penn, in his first major screen role since “State of Grace” in 1990, reminds viewers of what they’ve been missing in his performance as Carlito’s ambitious, amoral lawyer. Without stooping to caricature, he effortlessly captures what is most heinous in the profession.

The supporting cast is strong, including John Leguizamo as a strutting, up-and-coming hood, Luis Guzman as Carlito’s thick-headed bodyguard and Paul Mazursky as the barely contained, slow-burning judge presiding over the opening trial.

Penelope Ann Miller does the most with the underwritten girlfriend role and hits an effective emotional note when she explains the pleasure and agony of being a dancer in love with show business.

De Palma is in top form, maintaining a level of tension and anxiety in extended action setpieces. He works hard at making his backgrounds both interesting and complementary to the main action.

Tech credits are peerless, with Richard Sylbert’s production design cleanly and precisely capturing the bygone era. Frequent De Palma collaborator Stephen Burum adopts some unusualangles to give his camerawork an extra boost, and Patrick Doyle’s score suggests his ascendance into the niche vacated by the late Bernard Herrmann. Period disco selections have been cleverly conceived by Jellybean Benitez.

“Carlito’s Way” is ample evidence that it’s still the same old story when it comes to gangster movies. The other truth is that the good ones provide fertile ground worth tilling for another season.

Carlito’s Way

(Drama -- Color)

  • Production: Universal Pictures and Epic Prods. present a Bregman/Baer production. Produced by Martin Bregman, Willi Baer, Michael S. Bregman. Executive producers, Louis Stroller, Ortwin Freyermuth. Directed by Brian De Palma. Screenplay, David Koepp, based on the novels "Carlito's Way" and "After Hours," by Edwin Torres.
  • Crew: Camera (Eastman, Panavision), Stephen H. Burum; editors, Bill Pankow, Kristina Boden; music, Patrick Doyle; production design, Richard Sylbert; art direction, Gregory Bolton; set decoration, Leslie Pope; sound (Dolby), Les Lazarowitz; assistant director, Daniel Stillman; casting, Bonnie Timmerman. Reviewed at Universal Studios, Oct. 29, 1993. MPAA Rated: R. Running time: 144 min.
  • With: Carlo Brigante ... Al Pacino David Kleinfeld ... Sean Penn Gail ... Penelope Ann Miller Pachanga ... Luis Guzman Benny Blanco ... John Leguizamo Steffie ... Ingrid Rogers Norwalk ... James Rebhorn Vinnie Taglialucci ... Joseph Siravo Lalin ... Viggo Mortensen Pete Amadesso ... Richard Foronjy Saso ... Jorge Porcel Frankie ... Adrian Pasdar