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Happy 20th Anniversary Carlito’s Way

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It’s not exactly a novelty, for Al Pacino to play a gangster with dreams of going straight, sucked back into the business like coke through a straw. Three years earlier he was in similar shoes in “The Godfather Part III.” Remember the line, delivered in the kitchen, just before the heart attack? “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” A motto for aging gangsters and donut addicts alike. But that was Michael Corleone, a man with the death of 2 brothers, a fractured marriage and decades of soul-stealing family business to convince him that the straight path was the only path. For another Pacino character though, 5 years in the pen is enough. After gangland lawyer and friend David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) frees him on a technicality, the bearded former king of smack addresses the court with shades of Tony Montana. Far less cussing though.

“I have been sick with the social ills known in the ghetto, but my time in the sterling correctional facilities of Greenhaven and Sing Sing has not been in vain. I’ve been cured, born again, like the Watergaters. I know you’ve heard this rap before. Your Honor, I mean it. This is the truth. I’ve changed. I’ve changed, and it didn’t take no thirty years like Your Honor thought, but only five.”

Funny. Genuine. Street-wise. This is New York supreme court judge and author Edwin Torres’ fictional hero Carlito Brigante, at least on screen; I haven’t read the books. The character is featured in two Torres novels, “Carlito’s Way” and “After Hours,” the former an account of Brigante’s early years, the latter his after-prison story and the primary source material for the 1993 film (the title was changed in light of Martin Scorsese’s own “After Hours” film). Good movie. “Cahiers du Cinéma” thought so. Along with “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Goodbye South Goodbye,” the film magazine and mouthpiece of the French New Wave voted “Carlito’s Way” the best film of the 1990s. Best, I don’t know. Best is for ball games and farm crops, but on the subject of this film, I wouldn’t put up a fight. There’s too much to like.

Pacino is electric in the title role, strutting the streets of New York in a knee-length leather coat, playing it cool, politely turning down illicit job offers; one of his most sympathetic roles to date. His plan is to save 75 grand via El Paraíso, a swank nightclub he’s temporarily agreed to manage, then buy into a friend’s car dealership in the Caribbean. Kleinfeld finds it all amusing. “Oh, that’s right. You’re gonna rent Ford Pintos to tourists in Paradise.” Carlito is unphased and confident, but a little off his game. He’s tuned to the streets by default but things are different now. The players have changed and so has he, and in between nose fulls of cocaine even Kleinfeld himself is playing gangster. Brigante finds a saviour of sorts in ex-flame Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), a dancer with her own unrealized dream. To borrow a sentiment from “Rocky,” together they fill gaps. But even Gail can’t protect Carlito from what’s coming ~ the shysters, former crew members and youthful entrepreneurs of sin that populate mid-70s Spanish Harlem. The most colorful of these entrepreneurs is Benny Blanco from the Bronx (John Leguizamo), a volatile rising street hustler who mixes it up with Carlito in some of the film’s most memorable scenes.

“I don’t know, maybe there’s a mis-fuckin’ understanding here, I don’t know man. Maybe you don’t remember me. My name is Benny Blanco…”

“Maybe I don’t give a shit. Maybe I don’t remember the last time I blew my nose either.”

I chuckle at those moments but the language feels real, has slang and street color that’s both dangerous and funny. No surprise at their mixed effectiveness given that writer Torres walked those streets, he lived them, and channelled through screenwriter David Koepp (“Panic Room”) the dialogue seems honest. Nothing as iconic as, “Say hello to my little friend!” but “Here come da pain!” has a special place in many hearts, I’m sure. The cast is solid. From the majors to supporting players Viggo Mortensen and Luiz Guzmán as Pachanga, there’s not a loose brick in the wall. Leguizamo plays Benny like a knife with a slimy handle; if he can’t schmooze you with one end, he’ll stick you with the other. Penn, not surprisingly, is a wonder as Kleinfeld, nothing less than mutated into the frizzy haired, deliciously corrupted lawyer that earned him Golden Globe and Chicago Film Critics Association acting nominations. Of course, in the hands of Brian De Palma, presentation is personality.

Like Spielberg and his often-assumed mentor, Hitchcock, the New Jersey born director De Palma (“Sisters,” “Mission Impossible”) is known for his visual style. Canted angles, 360-degree pans, extended takes ~ they’re ever present in “Carlito’s Way,” along with an Odessa Steps sequence that rivals his “Potemkin” shootout in “The Untouchables,” this time on the escalators of Grand Central Station. It’s here, in the club, and in the excellent (kick ass) pool-hall scene that you know exactly who is calling the shots. De Palma has a singular stamp. Given his earlier Pacino vehicle, “Scarface,” the director no doubt has experience delivering this world, of mansions and period style, of lives fueled by booze, drugs, narcissism and dreams. His technique is immersive and operatic, completely suited for these bold characters.

If there can only be one Master of Suspense then, we can at least dub De Palma a Master of Viewer Immersion. I quote the late critic Roger Ebert, who encouraged film goers to “reflect that these movies contain treasure for those who admire the craft as well as the story, who sense the glee with which De Palma manipulates images and characters for the simple joy of being good at it.” But opinions vary. “The extreme vigor of their technique masks a deep derangement,” supposes film critic Peter Rainer, reflecting on the similarities between De Palma and Hitchcock. I can’t speak to Mr. De Palma’s mental health or his personal investment in the material he choses, but I have heard, and maybe you have too, the argument that he so violently and consistently subjects his female characters to victimhood (“Carrie,” “Dressed to Kill,” “Blow Out”) that his own psychology must play a part. The word “misogynistic” too is slung here and there. “I’m always attacked for having an erotic, sexist approach,” De Palma was quoted as saying, “chopping up women, putting women in peril. I’m making suspense movies! What else is going to happen to them?”

Wherever you stand, that’s not for this film. “Carlito’s Way” is without question a different animal and one that De Palma at first declined. “I didn’t even wanna read it. I didn’t wanna to do another movie with Spanish-speaking gangsters,” he says on the DVD featurette, referring to “Scarface.” In the end he was lured by the script. Thank god.

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