Universal // 1993 // 145 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // November 5th, 2007
"You think you're big time? You're gonna [effing] die big time!"
After his Oscar-winning performance in Scent of a Woman Al Pacino returned to his criminal roots in Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way. He had played an Italian gangster in The Godfather Trilogy, a Cuban gangster in Scarface (also directed by De Palma), and here shows his versatility by playing a Puerto Rican gangster.
After serving five years of a 30-year prison sentence, notorious criminal Carlito Brigante gets sprung by his shrewd, drug-addled attorney, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn, The Game). Brigante surprises (and disappoints) most of the New York City underworld by announcing that he is opening a nightclub and going legit. However, not unlike Don Michael Corleone, just when he thinks he's out, they pull him back in. For Brigante, it's his loyalty and fidelity to a criminal code of honor that puts him not only in conflict with the law, but exposes him to the wrath of violent, rival thugs.
Though Carlito's Way received only a moderate amount of attention following Pacino's flashy performance in Scent of a Woman, it seems to have aged just about as well as any other film from the 1990s. It is also probably the best mobster film from that decade not directed by Martin Scorsese. Thus it is fitting that it is among the first wave of films from the '90s to get re-released on HD DVD.
Anchoring Carlito's Way are top-rate performances from Pacino and Penn. Pacino's work here is particularly noteworthy for being one of the most restrained -- and effective -- of the latter half of his career. In contrast to Scarface's frenzied Tony Montana, Carlito is marked by his restrained ferocity; Pacino seems like a tightly wound coil in every scene, which infuses the film with a constant tension. This tension is greatly rewarded in the second half of the movie, when Carlito's life seems to be in constant peril.
Equally strong in a supporting role is Penn. Penn is now widely considered one of the best actors of his generation, but in 1993, while he was merely respected, Penn was infrequently working and wasting his talent in barely seen films like Casualties of War and We're No Angels. But after his revelatory performance as the perm-haired, weasely Kleinfeld, Penn's career was instantly invigorated. This role was such a departure because Kleinfeld was such a departure from Penn's public persona. While Penn is sometimes considered a brooding, confrontational bad boy, Kleinfeld is a whimpering, cowardly individual. Penn's performance evidences his range, and may very well have inspired Tim Robbins to cast him again against type in 1995's Dead Man Walking.
While Carlito's Way is one of several high watermarks for Pacino and Penn, it might be De Palma's career best. De Palma is one of the most stylized Hollywood directors of the past few decades, and his excess flash often works to the great detriment of his movies. But here, as in De Palma's other great film, The Untouchables, he shows restraint for the most part, and manages to only employ his unique visual sensibility to create tense and vibrant action scenes.
De Palma's style is also well matched with the film's visuals and soundtrack. Carlito's Way is set in 1970s New York City, and the film nails the clothing, the furnishings, and the sound of the decade. Perhaps most importantly, it never plays up the time period for camp, making this film one of the most restrained period pieces set in the '70s I've ever seen.
Ultimately, Carlito's Way is a touching, tense thriller with a reputation that has greatly improved over the years, though it is still not quite commensurate with its quality. This is a great film, and you shouldn't hesitate making it a part of your collection.
The film's gorgeous color palette is presented on a pristine 1080p/VC-1 transfer. The plaid jackets, cherry red suits, and wide cuffs can be viewed in wincingly close detail. The dark streets and shadowy interiors also feature great contrast, so fine that you can make out the many tiny cracks in the sidewalk. Though the story might distract you from the visuals, this is a stunning film.
The sound is tested mostly with popular music from the era and the occasionally flurry of gunfire. The Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack handles both of these capably. While there aren't enough effects here to give your surround system a real work out, it is still a fine sounding movie.
The features on the Carlito's Way HD DVD are identical to those found on the 2005 "Ultimate Edition." There are several minor extras, such as an introduction to the film by De Palma, who comes off surprisingly defensive and whiny. There are also nine deleted scenes, which sounds like a more enticing bonus feature than it really is. These scenes are presented in rough prints and offer nothing substantial in terms of story or character development. However, "The Making of Carlito's Way" is a one of the better making-of featurettes I've ever seen. Eschewing interviews with the film's stars, this mini-doc explores the birth of the movies, with a particular focus on the process of condensing two Edwin Torres novels into one coherent story.
One of the few missteps in Carlito's Way is the miscasting of Penelope Ann Miller as Gail, Carlito's love interest. In the 1990s, Miller spent a couple years on the verge of superstardom, and managed to secure some very high-profile roles, though few of these were in films of any distinction (anyone remember Year of the Comet?). Miller brings nothing to her already underwritten role, imbuing the character with a hautiness that makes Gail one of the most unbelievable streetsmart strippers in film history.
On a different note, for the past 14 years I've been debating with myself whether it was wise to give away the film's ending in the first minute. It does sap some of the drama out of the movie's climax, but it makes for a great opening.
Those who missed Carlito's Way during its initial release are highly encouraged to catch it up with it on HD DVD. This is the best the film has appeared since its initial release, thereby making this the most opportune time to discover it for the first time.
Not guilty. Free at last! Free at last!
Review content copyright © 2007 Brendan Babish; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* "Brian De Palma on Carlito's Way"
* "The Making of Carlito's Way"
* Photo and Poster Gallery
* Original Promotional Featurette