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Carlito's Way (Brian De Palma, 1993)
If you're anything like me, Brian De Palma's filmography can often be a disheartening adventure. Each time you watch one of his films, you become acutely aware of the remarkable grasp he holds on the technical aspects of filmmaking, yet are consistently reminded of how he often falls short in regards to plot and characters. While several of his films (The Untouchables, Scarface) hold an undeniable entertainment value, none can truly capture the feeling of a masterpiece. For the most part, he seems like a constant near-miss. More talented in some degrees than any of his contemporaries, yet unable to get over the hump and craft a true classic. Such a frustrating man...
That is, unless you've seen one of his most underdiscussed films (in my experience): Carlito's Way.
I suppose if you have a cynical point-of-view, all you might be able to see is the re-teaming of the Scarface duo. And I suppose if you go in with that mindset, there's enough to convince you that you're right. But if you're willing to put your expectations and prejudices aside, you'll find one of the most emotionally effective and powerful gangster pictures to grace the screen, by this or any director. For one of the few times in his career, De Palma gives us a character we can sympathize with and invest in. The story of Carlito's Way is not about drug deals, gangsters, and murder. It's about one man search to find or, perhaps better-worded, reclaim his soul after a life of crime and moral bankruptcy. In my opinion, this is the most effective portrayal of the classic "One More Score" storyline.
A trio of great performances are what set Carlito's Way apart from its many brethren in the gangster genre. Leading the way is Al Pacino, taking the time to actually create a character instead of consistently showboating. He's alloted a few "Pacino" moments (which thankfully happen early) but it's the quieter moments, especially any scenes he shares with Gail, that separates Carlito from the host of characters just like him. It might be a tired mechanism, but the romance at the heart of Carlito's Way is what really draws you in. Sure, there are the great moments of suspense and action set-pieces, but the dynamics between Carlito and Gail, and their struggle to find happiness, are just as intriguing. In addition to Pacino, Penelope Ann Miller takes what could have been a throwaway role and makes it her own. Instead of a standard love interest, we have a conflicted woman: So obviously in love with our protagonist, yet so furious with his lifestyle. The manner in which she shifts from one perspective to another in a matter of moments is first-class acting. Sean Penn is equally impressive in his performance as the sleazeball lawyer. Much like Miller, he takes what could/should have been a one-dimensional character and breathes a humanity into him. We're not meant to like Kleinfeld, but Penn gives us enough moments (particularly when he confesses to Carlito how in over his head he is) that we see the human side. The first time around, I didn't care much for the performance, but after a second viewing, it became clear how much Penn put into it.
No De Palma film would be complete without at least a few superbly crafted suspense set-pieces. One of the earliest scenes is the knockout scene in the bar hall. De Palma uses his signature style of long takes and mundane actions to build the tension to an almost unbearable level before the bloodshed explodes. But the true masterwork is the chase through Grand Central Station, a scene which I truly feel will never be replicated for its technical wizardy and impact. When you combine the emotions behind the scene with some of the best camerawork in De Palma's career, it might be safe to call the scene perfect.
I know there are many out there who have dismissed De Palma as a hack, incapable of crafting a complete motion picture. When you look at a good chunk of his work, it's easy to see why. But if you have an affinity for his style, Carlito's Way might be the film that reminds you why we think he's talented at all. Even if you have seen it before, I suggest going in with a new pair of eyes, setting aside your pre-conceived notions, and allowing De Palma to take you on a thrilling and powerful ride.