I just love gangster movies. For some reason, I’m fascinated with the lives of these guys on the wrong side. Some say that every gangster film is similar, but it’s far from being right. Like Roger Ebert often says, it’s not what it’s about that counts but how it’s about it. Hence, crime can be seen in very different lights, from the hard-boiled hipness of Tarantino to the melancholy contemplation of Beat Takeshi, the explosive poetry of John Woo or the elaborate storytelling of Scorsese. In the midst of all this comes Brian De Palma, probably one of the most versatile filmmakers in America. He did everything from drama, comedy, horror, war, thriller… In the gangster department, he offered us the unforgettable “Scarface”, the more mainstream but still excellent “The Untouchables” and most recently, “Carlito’s Way”.
The film begins as Carlito is gets out of a 30 years condemnation to jail after serving only 5, thanks to his crooked lawyer, Kleinfeld. Carlito is a legend in the streets of New York. The Puerto Rican native has been stealing cars, dealing smack and killing to save his ass since he was a teenager. But now, as age grows on him, he’s getting tired, and prison convinced him to retire. His plan is to get together 75 grands and then leave for the Bahamas, where he will rent cars to tourists. In order to get the dough, he becomes one of the owners of a successful nightclub à la “Saturday Night Fever” (the film is set in New York 1975 after all). He figures that this legal business will get him the money in barely a few months, and then vaya con dios. But as Pacino’s character in “The Godfather III” said “Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in!”
So thinks Carlito, who’s just can’t just lay low. Every day or so, a so-called friend asks him for a favor. Come with me for this deal. Help me out with that job. And so on. Plus, things have changed. Carlito’s an old school gangster who believes in the self-righteous code of the street, but now, he has to face a bunch of arrogant street punks like Benny Blanco from the Bronx. And then he’s divided between the woman he loves, Gail, who wants him to get out of everything, and his lawyer Kleinfeld, who needs him for one last job. It seems that for guys like Carlito, the only way out is feet first….
The film is very well written. The characters are well developed, the dialogue is sharp and the story is involving. I love Carlito’s bitter narration, and the theme of his doomed redemption is well developed. The film does not have the humor of “Goodfellas”, so at first, it ain’t as exciting, but it soon grows on you. Same thing for Al Pacino. In this film, his performance is mostly restrained. But as the film moves along, Pacino’s Carlito becomes a more and more interesting, complex character, and you see how well thought is his acting. The incredible Sean Penn is also great as Kleinfeld, a coke snorting corrupted Jew lawyer who wears a fro and glasses. Not the Sean Penn you usually see! It’s another character that seems one-dimensioned at first, but you soon sees that he ain’t what he seems. The cast also includes Penelope Ann Miller as Gail, who’s very good, the interesting Luis Guzman as Carlito’s assistant and the always fun John Leguizamo as Benny Blanco. But once again, it’s De Palma’s direction that steals the show. This ain’t his most show-off film, but many scenes are genuinely crafted, and the third act is riveting. The chase/shoot-out at the end is among De Palma’s finest work, and the film altogether is a great watch.