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.