Carlito’s Way (Remastered Edition) Blu-ray Review: De Palma’s Way Is Best Way

Ten years after they teamed up for Scarface (1983), Brian De Palma and Al Pacino created another stylish, violent film about the trials and tribulations of a Caribbean gangster in America. In Scarface, Pacino played Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee who scraps and blasts his way up the illegal drug trade ladder before coming to a violent, bloody, and coked-up end. In Carlito’s Way, Pacino portrays Carlito Brigante, an older and potentially wiser Puerto Rican drug dealer who has already made a name for himself. But this film finds him wanting to make a change, wanting to get out of the game.

If Scarface was De Palma’s Goodfellas, then Carlito’s Way is his The Irishman. It is the story of a gangster headed towards the end of his life, coming to terms with what that lifestyle leaves a man with. But whereas with The Irishman, Frank Sheeran becomes an old gangster with nothing left but a ruined body, Carlito is still young enough to find a better way out. To perhaps even be fulfilled.

As the film begins, Carlito has done five years of a thirty-year stretch in prison, but thanks to his crooked lawyer Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) he’s being released on a technicality. Though literally every character laughs at him for it, Carlito wants nothing more than to move to the Bahamas and work with his friend in a car-rental business. But he needs cash for the buy-in. Kleinfeld talks him into running a fancy nightclub he’s part owner of. With some hesitation, Carlito takes the job. He’s good at it and starts making really good, completely legitimate money.

The trouble is the club is exactly the sort of place the people he’s trying to get away from hang out. People from his old life keep popping up. He meets Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo) from the Bronx, the kind of ambitious hothead he once was. Carlito takes an immediate dislike to Benny and disrespects him, something that will come to haunt him later.

The film actually begins with a scene from the end, one in which we see Carlito lying on a train station floor with bullet holes in him. It is shot with De Palma’s usual style: the camera slowly does a vertical 360, but it seems such an odd choice to spoil the finale like that. And yet, when that scene finally does come at the end, when the gangsters are chasing Carlito through the train station, I still felt the thrill of adrenaline. I found myself hoping that Carlito was going to make it, even though I had literally seen how it ends already. Such is the power of De Palma’s filmmaking.

I certainly believe Carlito’s willingness to change, his desire to make good. Early on, he locates his ex-girlfriend Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), whom he broke up with just before going to prison. But unlike a million other cinematic gangsters, he treats her with utmost respect. Their scenes together feel altogether modern as he asks permission to speak with her, always recognizing her feelings. When he learns she’s actually a stripper and not the actress she told him she was, he initially balks, but quickly apologizes and acknowledges the legitimacy of her situation.

However, the old Carlito is never far away. In an early scene, someone close to him asks Carlito to go with him to a drug deal. Carlito doesn’t want to go, knows he shouldn’t be involved, but he can never say “no” to a friend. Upon arrival, he quickly realizes the deal is going bad and positions himself to take care of business when the need arrives. Carlito shows no hesitation in doing what needs to be done. It is another beautifully shot and stylized scene by De Palma and one that demonstrates how smart and ruthless Carlito can be when the time comes.

It is interesting to juxtapose Scarface with this film as the two characters are similar, but Tony is so over-the-top and excessive, and Pacino’s performance is right there with those excesses all the way. Carlito is much more subdued. There are bursts of anger and violence, and there is a seething rage that boils underneath Pacino’s performance at times, but this is a man who calmed with age, who no longer wants what his criminal past could bring him.

But again it keeps coming back to haunt him. Sean Penn is nearly unrecognizable in his ridiculous makeup and hairstyle. His performance is smarm personified. Kleinfeld may have started out in life with good intentions, but he’s made a career out of defending mobsters and he’s starting to believe he is one. He naturally tries to pull Carlito into his schemes and this creates the central tension of the film.

I first watched Carlito’s Way just after I got out of college in the late 1990s. I was just starting to truly appreciate Al Pacino as an actor and was digging into his filmography. I was none too impressed with the film back then. I didn’t particularly like Scarface either. I realize now I just wasn’t used to De Palma’s particular brand of filmmaking. I’ve since come to love the director and this viewing I found Carlito’s Way to be so very, very good.

Everybody is great in it. Pacino was starting to turn into an occasional parody of himself by this point in his career, but here he’s wonderful, even sublime at times. De Palma uses most of the tricks in his book (though surprisingly he never does a split-screen) to great effect. This isn’t his best film by any means, but it’s really good.

Universal Studios presents Carlitos’s Way with a new 4K transfer. It is available in a 4K Ultra HD version, but my copy was just the regular Blu-ray. It looks fantastic though. Extras include an interview with Brian De Palma about the film, a making of and promotional featurette, plus deleted scenes and trailers.

It should be noted that Arrow Video also released a 4K UHD version of this film this past September with many more extras and some special packaging. I do not know why Universal is putting this out so quickly after Arrow’s release, but I thought I should mention it. You can read our review of the Arrow release.

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Mat Brewster

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