Combustible Celluloid
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With: Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, John Leguizamo, Luis Guzman, Ingrid Rogers, Viggo Mortensen, Adrian Pasdar, James Rebhorn
Written by: David Koepp, based on novels by Edwin Torres
Directed by: Brian De Palma
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, drug content, sexuality and language
Running Time: 145
Date: 10/11/1993

Carlito's Way (1993)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Just When I Thought I Was Out...

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I admit that it took me two viewings of this movie, several years apart, to fully grasp its greatness. Indeed, most Americans have never appreciated it, though the French critics at Cahiers du Cinema named it the best movie of the 1990s (tied with Hou Hsiao-hsien's Goodbye South, Goodbye and Clint Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County).Time has only confirmed it, however, and it now emerges as one of director Brian De Palma's best.

Screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man) adapted two novels by New York City judge Edwin Torres. Al Pacino turns in a measured, moving performance as Carlito Brigante, a gangster who gets out of prison after serving 5 years of a 30-year sentence. His lawyer, Kleinfeld (an incredible Sean Penn) is a slick shyster who increasingly dabbles in cocaine and booze as his shady dealings get him deeper into trouble. Carlito wants to escape his past, to move to the Bahamas with his old girlfriend Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), but his allegiance to Kleinfeld leads to his downfall.

Many people perhaps saw this as a follow-up to Scarface (1983) with its epic running time and Pacino at its center, but it's a 360-degree turnaround, far more controlled and inevitable. De Palma whips up some of his greatest set-pieces, with his floating, Cinemascope camera tracking Carlito's wary movements. A lengthy cat-and-mouse chase scene at the film's climax practically surpasses Hitchcock and even gives Scorsese's GoodFellas a run for its money.

De Palma's obsession with sex and voyeurism is here, too; each time Carlito runs into Gail, he sees her through some kind of protective distance -- through a window, in an audience watching her on stage, and memorably, through the latched door of her apartment, reflected in a mirror. And though De Palma can sometimes drop the ball at his films' endings, Carlito's Way winds up on an amazing, perfectly-played note.

DVD Details: I own Universal's 2003 DVD release, which comes with a very good making-of featurette, though a new edition has been released since. A Blu-Ray arrived in 2010.

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