Judge Clark Douglas can't see the angles no more.
All the way to the end of the line, wherever that is.
"You a gangster now. You can't learn it at school…you can't have a late start."
Facts of the Case
Puerto Rican gangster Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman) was supposed to spend 30 years in prison, but thanks to some clever maneuvering by his lawyer (Sean Penn, Mystic River), he's being released after only five. Carlito spent some time contemplating his life while in prison, and decided that when he got out he was going to stay clean. He invests what little money he has in a local night club and begins his new life as a member of the legitimate business world. He turns down numerous opportunities to get back in the drug dealing game and attempts to re-connect with his old flame Gail (Penelope Ann Miller, The Shadow). Unfortunately, life just isn't going to let Carlito off the hook that easily.
"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in," Al Pacino declared in The Godfather: Part III. He doesn't say the exact same thing in Carlito's Way, but you know that's precisely what he's thinking. Carlito yearns so desperately for a respectable life alongside the woman he loves, and for a while it seems like he just might get there. "This dream of mine, it's so close I can almost touch it," he says. It's not surprising when we see that dream start to fall apart; the film does start with a flash-forward of Carlito being shot and loaded onto a stretcher. However, there is a genuine sense of heartbreak when it starts to happen, because the film does such a fine job of establishing the character and his dream of a new life beforehand.
The film understandably tends to invite comparisons to Scarface, the previous collaboration between Al Pacino and director Brian De Palma. That film starred Pacino as a man rising to power as a drug kingpin; this film stars Pacino as a former drug kingpin. However, Scarface was a film that presented Pacino and De Palma at their most feverishly intense, a three-hour opera of epic proportions. Carlito's Way is quieter, sadder, and more intimate in many ways. Both films are tragedies, though the one that keeps getting mistaken for a celebration of the title character is the one with the less sympathetic character.
You might expect that the romantic element of the film would be just an obligatory addition, but for me it forms the heart of the movie. Some of the best scenes in Carlito's Way are those between Pacino and Miller, who get to explore the many complex emotions of a very complicated relationship. There's a moment of transcendent cinema early on, as Carlito stands in the rain, holding a trashcan lid over his head and watching though a window as Gail dances with her ballet class. There's a look of such childlike fascination on his face, the look of a man desperately in love. That look appears again later, just before Carlito romantically kicks open Gail's door and takes her to the strains of Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful to Me." The scene could have been silly, but in the hands of De Palma, Pacino and Miller, it's so intensely moving.
De Palma garnered some of the best reviews of his career for Carlito's Way, as it's one of his most mature and nuanced films. While I think all of the acclaim does a disservice to the pulpy thrills of De Palma's more lurid work, the movie is most assuredly the work of a man fully in control of his craft (something De Palma has admittedly had trouble with during the past 20 years or so). The one sequence that did receive a little bit of criticism was the final train station scene, which some saw as a too-obvious attempt to recreate the iconic action sequence from The Untouchables. Hey, it's a tremendously well-crafted sequence and it works well in context, so who cares?
Pacino may not be entirely convincing as a Puerto Rican gangster, but he quickly establishes the character well enough to permit us to forgive that. I love the way Pacino handles his dialogue in the film, using the accent effectively to give it a certain rhythm and pace that just flows marvelously. Pacino has always had a knack for turning stylish dialogue into music (consider his handling of Mamet in Glengarry Glen Ross or Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice), and he does so to great effect in Carlito's Way. Sean Penn generated most of the acclaim in the acting department, and it's one of the actor's better turns, but I still think the film belongs to Pacino and Miller.
The Blu-ray transfer initially seems to be a disappointment, as the opening black-and-white prologue is loaded with grain, scratches, and flecks. These problems continue in the following courtroom scene, convincing me that I was in for a sub-par release of a catalogue title. However, at precisely that point the image become clean, clear and sharp. Fortunately, it more or less remains that way for the remainder of the film. Detail is exceptional, and the visually vibrant club sequences really have a lot of pop. Blacks are deep and shading is solid. Audio is strong as well, though there are a few instances where Patrick Doyle's exceptionally brash score seems a tad loud (I had to adjust the volume on a couple of occasions). The aforementioned club scenes are also probably the strongest in terms of audio, with funky '70s tunes blending with busy sound design and clean dialogue. The supplements from the previous special edition DVD are ported over: a very good 30-minute documentary called "The Making of Carlito's Way," a 5-minute interview with De Palma and some deleted scenes. The disc is enabled with D-Box Motion and BD-Live.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
First of all, I just can't find the logic in De Palma's decision to spoil the conclusion at the beginning of the film. While it sets up the narration device (Carlito's life is flashing before his eyes during what may be his final moments), it sucks a lot of the tension out of the otherwise-superb final 20 minutes. Also, Viggo Mortenson's one-scene supporting turn is a distraction, as Mortenson's cartoonish accent distracts and detracts greatly from the moment.
A moving mob drama boasting a strong central performance, Carlito's Way is an essential addition to any De Palma or Pacino fan's collection. The Blu-ray looks considerably better than the DVD for the most part and the price is reasonable, making it worth an upgrade as far as I'm concerned.
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Scales of Justice
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