Monday, March 4, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Carlito's Way

Firstly, let me apologize for the lack of posts last week. It was a combination of a very busy work week and a general lack of movie-watching on my part. Have no fear though, everything should be back on track as I return with my latest choice for Movie of the Week - "Carlito's Way".

Brian De Palma, Al Pacino, Sean Penn...sounds like the recipe for a campy film right? Well, it turns out that De Palma was able to tame down his "Scarface" technique to create a crime drama that is surprisingly grounded. "Carlito's War" recounts the story of Carlito Brigante, a former drug kingpin who has just been released from prison. Upon his release, he decides to turn over a new leaf and retire from the crime underworld. Of course, we soon learn that leaving your past behind is no easy task.
Due to the casting of Pacino, it's hard not to compare the film to that seminal classic "Scarface". Once again, Pacino is playing a Latin American and he is a main figure in the drug scene. In a way, this is an alternate version of the "Scarface" storyline, as you can somewhat imagine that this film is a pseudo-sequel, assuming Tony Montana became incarcerated. This is a welcome change in interpretation though, as the characters and general tone of "Carlito's Way" find a nice groove that lies just below the campy heights of that 1983 film's delirium. The result is a film that is altogether moving, contemplative and thought-provoking.

One of the first scenes is that of the trial where Carlito is released after serving only five years of a thirty year prison sentence. He defiantly declares that he has changed his ways, prompting an immediate eye-roll from me. His lawyer has obviously lied and schemed to get his client vindicated and his actions obviously deserve their just punishment. As we soon find out though, Carlito has indeed been rehabilitated after his prison stint. It begs the question, how much time is enough for a criminal? We always hear about things like "2 life sentences" etc., but is it really necessary? Of course, persons who commit heinous crimes should pay the price, but in terms of the idea of rehabilitation, how much do we trust our legal system to fulfill this purpose? It's a difficult question to answer, as it depends on the individual character of the convicted. Even Carlito's lawyer assumes that his client will go back to a life of crime. As we proceed through the plot, we realize that this is indeed an earnest tale of a man's attempt at redemption.
One of the ways that De Palma restrains himself this time around is through the use of voice-overs. In this case, the tool enhances the film as we get a sense of Carlito's newfound calm and positive outlook. The events of the film are basically a flashback as Carlito tells us of his new dreams and his struggles to achieve them. It really instills the pensive, contemplative mood that I mentioned earlier. Despite his best intentions, his past comes back to haunt him and his personal reinvention seems increasingly impossible by the day.
As a viewer, it's virtually impossible to root against him. We haven't been privy to his previous lifestyle so it's hard for us to avoid genuine concern for his well-being. Pacino's acting certainly helps this, as he makes the character very relatable. His Puerto Rican Carlito seems more authentic than his outlandish attempt at Cuban-ness and as a result, he has an "everyman" quality about him. The supporting cast is also very good, namely Sean Penn as his morally repugnant lawyer David Kleinfeld and Penelope Ann Miller as his rekindled love interest Gail. In particular, his interactions with Gail gives us a good sense of the man he was, the man he is and the man he wants to be. Likewise, Gail's personal journey is very moving and significantly contributes to the film's striking sentimentality.
While this sentimentality is quite pleasant, it does cause some of the film's biggest problems. Mainly, the film struggles to cohesively blend the forceful crime-related drama with the subtle romance and the questionable music choices that accompany them. At the drop of a hat, the tone can switch from a violent confrontation to a flirtatious encounter and the transition can be quite jarring. It seriously threatens to undermine the general high quality of the filmmaking, but the thematic undercurrent keeps the film afloat.
You can perhaps use this to claim the directing as being shaky in the early parts, but the ending sequence reminds us that we do actually have a talented director behind the camera. The final minutes are spectacular, delivering exciting, nailbiting thrills that recall "The Untouchables" and "Mission: Impossible". It's a great way to cap the film and worth the price of admission on its own.
In conclusion, it's hard not to get wrapped up in this film. It is well-paced, well-acted and well-directed. It's certainly one of the high points of De Palma's admittedly inconsistent filmography and I can easily recommend it.


  1. Haven't seen Carlito in a long time but I have fond memories of it. Not nearly as culturally relevant as Scarface but in my mind a better film. Nice revisit!

    1. Thanks. I liked this one quite a bit, it was my first time watching it!