Based upon a pair of books by Edwin Torres (though drawn much more from the second book, After Hours, then the first novel that it takes its name from), Carlito's Way is the story of Carlito Brigante (Pacino), a "reputed assassin and purveyor of narcotics" who has, when we meet him in 1975 New York City, just been sprung from a 30-year prison sentence after a mere five years, thanks to the legal wrangling of his attorney David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn). He's not just Dave's client, he's his friend (there's a great sequence where the pair hits the town on his first night out, and keep excluding their dates so they can drink and laugh together), so Carlito divulges his humble dream: to buy into his buddy's car rental business in the Bahamas and live the good life. Kleinfeld laughs, but Carlito is serious. "Car rental guys don't get killed that much," he reasons.
He gets a job managing a nightclub and vows to go straight until he can put together the scratch to make his escape to paradise. Things start to go his way when he reconnects with Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), a classical dancer turned go-go girl who he loved and lost when he went into the joint. But, as one of Pacino's other characters would say, just when he thinks he's out, they pull him back in. In this story, "they" is Kleinfeld, who has spent so much time defending criminals that he's begun to fancy himself one, carrying a gun and talking tough. When Kleinfeld's sketchy associations start to get serious, Carlito realizes he's getting in deep with his friend and starts to feel "them old reflexes coming back again." He's torn between doing the loyal thing and doing the right thing, but by the time he makes his choice, it may be too late.
The Torres novels were written mostly in the voice of Carlito, and screenwriter David Koepp makes the mostly-wise decision to use narration in order to maintain the character's distinctive voice. The film begins with black-and-white footage of Carlito being shot, and rolled on a gurney as Partrick Doyle's baroque score accompanies his opening voice-over. "My Puerto Rican ass ain't supposed to have made it this far," Carlito says, and proceeds to tell his story up to this point. His narration helps motor the movie along (most of his voice-overs begin with him placing us into the story--"So here's me at the club," "So here's me back with Gail") and allow for a bit of street-existentialist angst, as when he despairs "I don't invite this shit, it just comes to me," or the realizes that if "you get old enough, you remember a reason why everybody wants to whack you." Pacino's performance, though indisputably powerful, is a bit unsteady; his opening speech, a flat attempt at a courtroom barn-burner, is infected by the cadences (and even, in spots, the accent) of his similar closing speech in Scent of a Woman. But he's got some good moments, like the resignation in his voice and his face when he tells Dave, "You killed us," or the entire unspoken history we get from the way he and the often-underrated Miller look at each other when they reconnect, or the way he smiles at her (this remains the only film I've ever seen that gets a visceral, erotic thrill out of a hug).
Several up-and-coming actors populate the supporting cast--including Viggo Mortensen, John Leguizamo, and Luis Guzman--but the best performance in the film is Sean Penn's. Nearly unrecognizable in his granny glasses and receded red permed hair, he's a comic batshit dynamo as the pistol-packing, coke-snorting, high-strung Jewish lawyer who's in way over his head; whether he's desperate, murderous, or kvetchy (as an afternoon party goes out of control at his summer house, he implores a frisky pair to go to a bedroom--"I've got guests!"), you can't stop watching him. But it's never a caricature--we see his attraction to the danger, and why he can't handle what he's got himself into.
Carlito's Way found director DePalma at a crossroads; he'd helmed the 40-megaton bomb The Bonfire of the Vanities three years earlier, and though he won back some doubters with the previous year with Raising Cain (a clear attempt at the "classic DePalma" style of his 1970s pictures), he still had something to prove. But his direction here is stylish and impressive, full of inventive framing--he's tinkering with the Dutch angles he used so well in his next film, Mission: Impossible, and having fun with mirror play, as in Carlito and Gail's big fight or Carlito's interrogation of Sasso--and evocative imagery (late in the film, he uses low angles and hot light to show Carlito's world closing in on him). The fluidity of his camera movement is also eye-catching; the impossibly long opening-credits shot of Bonfire was overshadowed by Scorsese's similar "Copa" scene in Goodfellas that same fall, but he's still experimenting with those extended, unbroken shots, gliding through the sleek nightclub with his protagonist. His primary skill remains in his ability to create tension and suspense, often out of nothing but spry camerawork and well-placed music, as in the unbearable sequence where Kleinfeld is waiting for an elevator, or the film's first big set piece, when Carlito accompanies his cousin to a bar for some "business." The camera placement and smooth movement of the sequence is flawless, as is the hilariously (but clearly purposefully) overwrought score by Patrick Doyle. The music pounds and pushes; when Carlito waits in the bathroom, checking his pistol and shouting out taunts ("You think you big time? You gonna fuckin' die, big time!"), the music is complimenting and encouraging him--it's a duet for piano and Pacino.
And then there's the climactic Grand Central Station chase, one of the all-time great DePalma set pieces (right up there with the prom scene in Carrie and the train station sequence in The Untouchables). It's beautifully prepared, first with a hospital visit to Kleinfeld capped off by a delicious pay-off, then a quick drop-in at the nightclub to collect his nest egg, interrupted by a visit from some very angry gangsters. Pacino is at his fast-thinking best, letting us see his clever character improvising his way to the exit. After the tensest subway chase this side of The French Connection, Carlito evades the hoods and slips through Grand Central in a virtuoso sequence that juices up on the filmmaker's slick, relentless energy. It's a tight, terrific scene. DePalma fumbles the film a few times previous--he can't find a way to pitch the conflicts with Gail above the soap-opera level of Koepp's writing, and can't decide whether he's using Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful" legitimately or ironically--but, as in the Thomas Crown Affair remake, when you end that strong, you forgive and/or forget some of the stumbles.
It may not have the cult following of its creators' previous collaboration, the iconography of Pacino's Godfather films, or the pulpy, kinky kick of DePalma's best work. But Carlito's Way is an enjoyable B-movie, slick and zippy, given extra thrills by the shoot-the-works pizzazz of its cast and the stylistic flourishes of its skilled director.
"Carlito's Way" hits Blu-ray on Tuesday, May 18. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.