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Director DePalma tries to make comeback in Carlito's Way

Carlito's Way
Universal Pictures.
Directed by Brian De Palma.
Written by David Koepp.
Based on novels by Edwin Torres.
Starring Al Pacino, Sean Penn,
and Penelope Ann Miller.
Loews Cheri.

By Scott Deskin
Staff reporter

Brian De Palma wants to make a comeback. After making a couple of box office/critical disasters, Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and Raising Cain (1992), De Palma is hungry to regain the success he had with The Untouchables (1987). In this respect Carlito's Way represents a logical return to his forward-looking, tried-and-true method of tragic-hero filmmaking.

The film opens with Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) being carried away on a stretcher in a New York train station, covering a bloody, bullet-torn body with his hands. He rapidly recalls the makings of his demise (via flashback), which started with his release from a 30-year sentence in jail. After serving only five years, however (he is released on a technicality), he feels compelled to tell the judge that he is a changed man and that his days of heroin dealing are all behind him. This grandiose speech is delivered much to the bemusement Carlito's lawyer and best friend, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), and to the disgust of the district attorney. "Free at last!" Carlito proclaims as he exits the courthouse, unaware that he is not as free as he thinks.

Carlito's big dream, in conjunction with going straight, is to pool $75,000 toward a new life and car-rental dealership in the Bahamas. When the ruling factions in Carlito's old barrio learn of this, they are surprised and somewhat skeptical of his reformed character. Another part of his plan is to win back his former love, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), a night-club dancer who has Broadway-bound aspirations of her own. Carlito becomes manager of a nightclub in order to procure his money, and he figures that as long as he keeps his nose clean, his future of relaxation in the Carribean is set.

Of course, fate has other plans for him, primarily in the form of his scumbag lawyer, Kleinfeld. In the short time that Carlito spends in prison, Kleinfeld has advanced from small-time mob lawyer to a full-fledged, coked-out shyster and racketeer. As a result of his dirty dealings, he is forced to ask an insane task of his friend Carlito, who reluctantly submits to Kleinfeld's wishes. Another character named Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo), a small-time drug runner and hustler reminiscent of Carlito's former self, is confronted in a clash with Carlito's ego, a clash that Pacino's character is wont to regret.

Pacino plays the Puerto Rican character with great relish, even though his accent wavers toward his Scent of a Woman drawl at times. He plays his character with the resilient toughness of a Sonny Montana from De Palma's Scarface (1983), but is closer to the melancholy, contemplative nature of Michael Corleone from The Godfather trilogy. There is no better actor suited to the title role of Carlito's Way than Pacino. Unfortunately, his best efforts are lost in the overly-glamorized, overly-decadent setting of the film; although set in 1975, the film's gaudy clothing and bad music threaten to undermine Carlito's plight.

However, there is no denying the power behind Sean Penn's performance, probably one of the best supporting performances this year. His lawyer is the personification of scum, even at his most vulnerable. Those who remember Penn as the stoned surfer in Fast Times at Ridgemont High should be surprised at this commendable dramatic turn. Penelope Ann Miller, as Carlito's love interest, is less fortunate, for she has the duty of serving moral conscience to Pacino's character and frequently comes off as too plaintive.

The film's last stretch of action does not take off until the last half-hour, and builds to a predictable but enjoyable climax in New York's Grand Central Station (comparisons to De Palma's "Odessa Steps" sequence in The Untouchables are a bit unfair). But, at 141 minutes, the audience may be left to ponder the peculiarities in Pacino's accent before the intricacies of the plot come to light. Brian De Palma, with Carlito's Way, wants to have it both ways: enjoying past glories while rebounding from recent failures. The film halfway succeeds, and thus must be determined as a noble failure for the director.