Even with Pacino and Penn, 'Carlito's Way' is definitely the wrong one

November 12, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In the opening seconds of "Carlito's Way," Carlito catches a bullet where his heart never was.

Mother of God, is this the end of Carlito?

No such luck, compadres. It's only the beginning and you have to sit there for two long hours to learn if Carlito bleeds out, as the story proceeds to unravel in his wound-fevered, flashback-haunted brain. This movie didn't need a better script, but better bullet placement.

That's another way of saying that "Carlito's Way" is one of the most disappointing films of the year, a dour, unmoving gangster chronicle about a Puerto Rican hood who decides to get out of the rackets only . . . now here's the big surprise . . . it's a little too late.

Another variation in the persistent yet questionable theme of the romantic gangster, Pacino's Carlito Brigante, former dope dealer, gets out of prison on a legal technicality with the help of his lawyer, Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn, who seems to have borrowed Alan Dershowitz's hair), and sets out to go straight -- straight, that is, by his provisional standards. Carlito's idea of straight: He will no longer deal smack to kids, but he'll still ride shotgun on dealer runs and strong-arm boys who try and step on to his turf.

Pacino will get great reviews for his performance, but the truth is, he's not very good. He's still using that strange, histrionic quasi-Southern accent from his last overrated turn in "Scent of a Woman." Somehow Pacino unleashed is not nearly so impressive as Pacino repressed. In "The Godfather" films, as Michael Corleone, he commanded with a glance of his vivid, always wary eyes; when he spoke it was pithily and forcefully. By contrast, Carlito is a blowhard, always grabbing people and making ludicrous threats. He's a ranter, a nut case; he doesn't even represent the gangster's most subversive allure, which is his utter, amoral coolness and the way in which we secretly yearn to possess his machismo and charisma. There's nothing sexy or mesmerizing about Carlito.

But nothing else in the film feels remotely real either. Nothing connects coherently. Major subplots have little to do with each other, presumably owing to their origins in two separate novels by Edwin Torres and screenwriter David Koepp's inability to combine them organically. One involves the steadily increasing corruption of the lawyer Kleinfeld, as he schemes to draw Carlito into his scams for a variety of motives. Penn is equally showy in the role, but again it's a superficial performance, all hair and accent, no soul. Worse, neither the actors nor the script nor the director can make this relationship plausible; it feels thin and forced, and there's no genuine warmth or interaction between Pacino or Penn.

Then there's the ROMANTIC INTEREST. Really, it's so baldly done and unconvincing it should be written in all-caps. Penelope Ann Miller, obviously interested in an image re-lube, plays a showgirl/stripper who gets more than a few minutes of topless cavorting time and a shot at thrusting her way into the hearts and minds of a generation, pelvicly speaking. But when she's not strutting she's . . . the same dim nice girl she's always been, and as utterly negligible as her unpersuasive affair with Carlito.

Finally, at the action level, the movie is a complete wash. Brian De Palma has always had a reputation for being a showy technician, an orchestrator of effects and pyrotechnics, but as a piece of film jazz, and in comparison to the works of such masters as John Woo or even Francis Ford Coppola in "The Godfathers," "Carlito's Way" is really unimpressive, thin stuff.

You can feel the poor guy struggling to imitate himself; he stages an elaborate climactic shootout in a train station stairwell, just as he did in "The Untouchables," but in the same phony vernacular. It's one of the most irritating of movie fantasies, the gunfight in which the hero is shot at a hundred times by antagonists who always miss, while he himself only fires four times and never misses. Mad magazine grew tired of parodying this pitiful old stroke back in the '50s!

It seems clear that all involved hoped desperately to re-create "Scarface," the same Latino-based mega-hit of years back. And they have, and maybe they'll make a lot of money. But they seem to have forgotten: That one wasn't any good either.

"Carlito's Way"

Starring Al Pacino, Sean Penn and Penelope Ann Miller

Directed by Brian De Palma

Released by Universal

Rated R

... **

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