There's a scene early in 'Carlito's Way' that effectively encapsulates Brian De Palma's career as a filmmaker. The lead character Carlito Brigante visits a seedy pool hall to accompany his naïve young cousin on a drug deal with some shady local thugs. Sensing that something is amiss, Carlito tries to play it cool while scoping out the environment, analyzing the positions of everyone in the room and plotting their next moves. Claiming that he wants to demonstrate a trick shot at the pool table, he carefully rearranges the details of the scene -- the balls on the table, the pool cue he's holding, the people he's talking to -- and lines everything up perfectly so that he can use the reflection off one person's sunglasses to view what's happening behind him. And then, just as the baddies launch the attack he anticipated, Carlito reveals the true purpose of his "trick shot" and leaps into action using all of the elements he's prepared. The sequence is staged with elegance, precision, and nail-biting suspense. In it, Carlito becomes Brian De Palma, directing the scene like a delicate game of dominoes, laying out his pieces with nervous tension and watching them fall into place exactly as he planned. Any tiny misstep would cause the entire thing to fall apart, but when executed properly it becomes a moment of exquisite beauty.
This is the nature of all of De Palma's films. He adores the set-up of a scene and the anticipation of something happening just as much as the payoff when it finally comes. At times, the director proves himself more game master than storyteller. All too often, especially when he writes his own scripts for movies like 'Body Double' or 'Raising Cain', the result is a dopey plot that serves only to deliver a handful of brilliant set-pieces. Taken on their own, these scenes are cinematic genius, but when viewed in context aren't enough to save dumb movies from their other failings. When matched with the proper material, however, De Palma's technical proficiency, grand showmanship, and artistic sensibilities unite into a perfect formula for rousing populist entertainment, as they did in his greatest commercial and critical success with 'The Untouchables'.
Though it has seldom received the same level of respect as 'The Untouchables', as far as I'm concerned 'Carlito's Way' is Brian De Palma's best film to date. Al Pacino reunites with the director for the first time since their cult hit 'Scarface' a decade earlier. At the time of the film's release in 1993, the pair were accused in critical circles of merely retreading familiar ground, as if putting the two together in another story about Hispanic gangsters automatically made it the same movie. While it's true that they were revisiting some of the same themes, the newer film is clearly a more mature and contemplative effort, positing the notion of what would happen to a young thug like Tony Montana had he lived to be a little older, a little wiser, and had time to reflect on the mistakes of his life.
Pacino's character Carlito Brigante is a former two-bit street hustler recently released from prison and trying to straighten out his life, but who winds up falling back into old circles despite trying to climb his way out. He isn't helped much at all in his attempts by lawyer Davey Kleinfeld (Sean Penn in a transformative performance), an old childhood friend now an unstable, paranoid coke fiend who demands that Carlito help him sort out some trouble he's gotten into with the Mob. Yes, it's true that the One Last Job plot is a familiar staple of the crime genre. At times, you expect to hear Pacino deliver his "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" line from 'The Godfather Part III'. Nevertheless, a story that could have easily devolved into rote formula hackery is skillfully kept on track by its attention to atmosphere, detail, and nuances of character. Based on a pair of novels by author Edwin Torres and adapted seamlessly by screenwriter David Koepp, 'Carlito's Way' is one of the few De Palma movies that not only plays clever mind games, but also has a genuine soul.
Set in Spanish Harlem during the late 1970s, the film thrives on the specificity of its environment, each location and character personality vividly sketched. De Palma has enormous fun recreating the street life and disco nightclub scenes of the era, but doesn't play them for camp. The soundtrack is filled with familiar oldies (carefully selected by music producer Jellybean Benitez) such as disco hits "Got to Be Real" and "(Shake Shake Shake) Shake Your Booty", all played without irony. When Joe Cocker croons "You Are So Beautiful", the song is at that moment an honest reflection of the characters' emotions. And somehow it works, never turning into the ridiculous parody you'd expect.
Pacino delivers a terrific performance, surprisingly restrained in comparison to his over-the-top flamboyance in 'Scarface', or for that matter the grating showboating that won him an undeserved Oscar for 'Scent of a Woman' the year before. He's matched beat-for-beat by Sean Penn, practically unrecognizable beneath frizzy "Jewfro" hair and oversized glasses. Also turning up for supporting turns are Luis Guzman, Adrian Pasdar, and Viggo Mortensen, among others. John Leguizamo's "Benny Blanco from the Bronx" is an indelibly memorable character.
On equal standing as a character in itself is De Palma's filmmaking. The director has an unparalleled mastery of film language and widescreen photography, typically keeping every inch of the frame cluttered with important visual information. His restless camera glides through scenes, seductively floating and drifting from character to character in a playful dance, at every moment revealing just precisely the right bit of detail exactly when it needs to appear. During his famous action set-pieces, he has perfectionist control over every element on screen, where, when, and how they're revealed to the characters and to the viewers. Not just the technique, but the viewers' growing cognizance of the technique and how it's employed, works flawlessly to maximize suspense and excitement in a way few other living directors can match.
Even so, during its release in 1993, 'Carlito's Way' was met with critical indifference and disappointing box office. At the time, De Palma had been riding a string of flops, including the notorious disaster 'The Bonfire of the Vanities', and his stock in Hollywood was at an ebb. Critics accused him not only of repeating 'Scarface', but of recycling many of his other familiar films. Indeed, there's a subway chase in the movie that restages a similar sequence from 'Dressed to Kill', and a huge action scene set on an escalator at Grand Central Station that clearly calls back to the climax of 'The Untouchables' (itself an allusion to Sergei Eisenstein's 'Battleship Potemkin'). In the eyes of some, this was De Palma simply reaching into an old bag of tricks, seemingly out of desperation.
Personally, I've never understood that view. De Palma has often used his movies to make explicit references to his favorite directors and films, be it the numerous Hitchcockian elements in his suspense thrillers of the '70s and '80s, that 'Potemkin' scene in 'The Untouchables', or practically the entirety of 'Blow Out', a tribute to both Michelangelo Antonioni's 'Blow-Up' and Francis Coppola's 'The Conversation' (he would also later borrow a scene from 'Topkapi' for his 1996 'Mission: Impossible', and lift extensively from '2001' during the dreadful 'Mission to Mars'). De Palma's cinematic vocabulary is one that consists in large part of homage. To me, I see these parts of 'Carlito's Way' as a self-reflexive commentary on his own career and his directorial technique. More importantly, the scenes in question simply work in the new context, never feeling forced, stagy, or in any way inorganic to the movie.
'Carlito's Way' runs 2 1/2 hours but never feels long. It's perfectly paced, the suspense set-pieces effectively measured to punctuate the already compelling dramatic scenes. It's a rich and rewarding work from a filmmaker who has admittedly been very uneven over the years, but who is here at the top of his game. The film may not have been appreciated enough in its day, but deserves recognition for the scope of its achievement.
The HD DVD: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has released 'Carlito's Way' on HD DVD. The disc has the studio's usual generic menus with annoying beeping sounds that can be turned off if you'd like (who would want them on?), but only by scrolling through a bunch of other beeping options to get to that setting. The case art features Universal's standard ugly swoosh borders.
Stephen Burum's glorious 2.35:1 cinematography is replicated beautifully by this 1080p/VC-1 transfer. The opening black & white prologue sequence is marred by a disappointing amount of dirt and specks, but the source materials clear up after that. After the first scene, this is a very colorful movie, and the disc reproduces the rich, vivid colors (witness the deep reds of the pool hall walls) with precision. Black levels are also solid and have good shadow detail, lending the image an excellent sense of depth.
The photography can be a little on the soft side, owing to the choice of lenses used. As a result, the picture isn't always necessarily razor sharp, however it does have a satisfying amount of detail, far better than the DVD edition. Only on the HD DVD, for example, can you read the tiny initials sewn into Kleinfeld's shirt cuffs. The disc has next to no edge ringing artifacts (perhaps a miniscule amount in one or two individual shots) or distracting digital compression issues. The CGI fog effect used during the Taglialucci rescue scene is a little dated, but don't mistake the smeariness present there as a transfer flaw.
Although Universal has a hit-or-miss track record for catalog titles, this one is a "hit".
Offered in Dolby Digital Plus or lossless Dolby TrueHD options, the 'Carlito's Way' soundtrack has never had a particularly showy mix in terms of zinging surround effects or slamming bass action. However, it has nice musical fidelity in both Patrick Doyle's score and all of the period songs, as wells as clear dialogue and crisp sound effects. Gunshots have a clean pop with a little bit of satisfying low-end thump. While the soundtrack may not be an action movie rollercoaster that will shake the foundation of anyone's house, it impresses in the clarity of subtle audio details, such as the convincing ambient atmosphere that envelops the room during scenes inside the disco or strip club. I probably wouldn't pull this disc out as an audio showcase to demo for friends, but the sound quality is consistently engaging and suits the movie well.
All of the bonus features from the 2005 "Ultimate Edition" DVD release have been carried over to the HD DVD. You'd think there might be more of them for something supposedly "ultimate".
'Carlito's Way' is an excellent movie, perhaps the best in Brian De Palma's career. The HD DVD has very nice picture and sound, even if the bonus features don't amount to much. The disc comes highly recommended.