Sunday, July 18, 2010
From the Vault: Carlito's Way
To paraphrase Rodgers and Hammerstein, how do you solve a problem like De Palma? Unquestionably, director Brian De Palma is blessed with a great deal of talent. Mysteriously though, while he can create many riveting moments and great film sequences, it seems difficult for him to make a movie that works from beginning to end. Alas, this is the case with his latest work, Carlito's Way, which contains some of the best work De Palma has ever done but which still frequently misses the mark.
Al Pacino, fresh from his Oscar win in Scent of a Woman, re-teams with his Scarface director for this adaptation of two novels by Edwin Torres.
The setting is 1975 and Pacino plays Carlito Brigante, a drug kingpin in Spanish Harlem who finds himself released from a 30-year prison sentence after serving five years. Brigante is in his late 40s and views this early release as an opportunity to turn his life around and become successful in a law-abiding career. Many things stand in Carlito's way though, not the least of which is his relationship with the lawyer who sprang him from prison (an unrecognizable Sean Penn in a brilliant performance).
The story Carlito's Way has to tell has been told many times before, but a lot of this film is fresh, thanks mainly to those moments when De Palma seems to have passion for what he's doing.
From a tense scene in a pool hall to a flirtatious conversation through a door with the chain lock still in place, De Palma creates many funny and tense moments. The tour de force of the film though is its climax, with an extended chase scene through subways and Grand Central Station that will likely become a classic for years to come. It's almost worth it just to see the movie for that sequence alone.
Therein lies the problem with De Palma. He seems to be a maker of moments, not movies. One of the things that hampers Carlito's Way so much is an inconsistency in tone. Much of the time, things are played seriously while others — including the great chase — are almost comic opera.
At times, the moods are so incongruous that it makes Patrick Doyle's instrumental score annoying during the heavy scenes and downright irreplaceable during the climax. De Palma should have picked a tone (my choice would be the light comic touch, which works better) and stayed with it. The mood swings sap the film of any emotional resonance it might have had.
Another drawback to the film is the yet another case of ill-used voice-overs, in this case by Pacino as Carlito. Sometimes the narration even undermines Pacino's otherwise solid performance. In one instance, Carlito makes a mistake and that can be clearly read on Pacino's expressive face. Unfortunately though, the voice-over undercuts the moment by underlining it in words. In addition to the spectacular turns of Pacino and Penn, there is a brief but effective performance by John Leguizamo as an up-and-coming hoodlum. His performance is charismatic and indicates a star on the rise.
Ultimately, Carlito's Way is a difficult film to make a call on. It has many scenes I want to watch again, but I don't know if they're worth sitting through the rest of the film to see.