From the Archive: Carlito’s Way

I’m overjoyed that I’m presenting a review in which I use the word “downright” twice. As the Gone Girl think pieces begin to pile up, let’s revisit the last decent work of a director who has genuine threads of misogyny running through his work, shall we? This was written for the Reel Thing Reports that ran a couple times a day on WWSP-90FM after my graduation necessitated retiring the weekly program of the same (or same-ish, to be accurate) name.

Almost all of director Brian De Palma’s films include at least one passage that is put together with such impressive images and live wire storytelling skill that you’d swear he agreed to the entire picture just to take a crack at that one section. In a great film like “The Untouchables,” it’s the Odessa Steps tribute final shootout. And even a bad film like “Bonfire of the Vanities” boasts the dizzying opening tracking shot that follows Bruce Willis through the maze-like interior of a hotel basement. In De Palma’s new film, entitled “Carlito’s Way,” the moment comes near the end and finds Al Pacino being chased through the subway and engaging in a gun battle on the escalators of Grand Central Station. The scene recalls “The Untouchables” and reinvents it for thr grittier, nastier ’90s. The poetry has been intentionally drained out of it, and it now plays out with a new rage and intensity, hitting with the impact of a lightning strike.

In the film, Pacino plays Carlito Brigante, a Puerto Rican gangster who is sprung early from a thirty-year prison sentence because of illegal wiretaps used in his conviction. He wants to go straight, dreaming of retiring to the Bahamas to run a car rental business. But every time he wants out, they pull him back in. Though he gets a respectable job running a trendy nightclub, his past keeps intruding into his life, both in the form of old friends and a troubling reputation. The biggest challenge to his attempts to change comes from the seedy lawyer who got him out of prison and requests a favor that Pacino feels honor bound to do for him.

The screenplay isn’t exactly bursting with originality and feels like particularly old ground for Pacino. The screenplay by David Koepp, adapted from a pair of Edwin Torres novels, moves through the motions so predictably that De Palma can start the film by showing us the ending without doing a whole lot of damage. We would have seen it coming anyway. The weak screenplay is overcome, however, by the trio of De Palma, Pacino, and Penn. After a series of misfires, De Palma is back in fine, corrosively exciting form. As the camera swings around Pacino’s disco, taking in the gaudy neon or the editing is fast and furious during a tense poolroom scene, you can feel De Palma bristling with creative energy. De Palma makes this world so darkly appalling that looking away is impossible.

Pacino is given surprisingly little to do as the film takes advantage of his character’s allegiances with ever trying to understand them, but he is nonetheless a riveting, explosive screen presence. When the anger of his past life rushes into the character, Pacino makes the moment downright chilling. And Sean Penn takes the character of the lawyer and finds the oily soul of a man who has spent his professional life intimidated by his gangster clients and is now reveling in the cocaine-inspired confidence that allows him to lash back at them. None of that forgives the fact that Penelope Ann Miller’s character, a dancer who serves as Pacino’s love interest, is horribly underwritten. And those who continually charge De Palma with misogynistic attitudes in his films will find plenty to rail against here, much of it hard to defend.

“Carlito’s Way” stands as little more than a shaky star vehicle meant to give Al Pacino the chance to show off his ferocious talent. Luckily, on those terms, it’s genuinely entertaining and, at times, downright thrilling. (3 stars, out of 4)