Sunday, November 10, 2013

'Carlito's Way' Was Routine and Recycled

After I saw "Carlito's Way" — the movie that was released 20 years ago today — I concluded that the movie's star, Al Pacino, simply added a Spanish accent to the same character he had played in the "Godfather" movies, especially "Godfather III."

Pacino's character, a Puerto Rican drug–dealing gangster, was doing time (decades of it) in prison but was freed after only a few years on a technicality, thanks to his unscrupulous attorney (Sean Penn, who, I thought, bore a striking resemblance to Art Garfunkel in "Carnal Knowledge"). Upon his release, he decided to get out of his line of work as soon as he had accumulated enough money as the manager of a club owned by his lawyer to retire to the Caribbean.

But, like Michael Corleone, he couldn't escape his past.

In the interim, he rekindled his relationship with Gail, a stripper played by Penelope Ann Miller, and agreed to help his attorney, who had been coerced into helping a convicted mob boss (from whom the lawyer had stolen $1 million) escape from prison. Cocaine seemed to course through every relationship and every act in the story, which was to be expected, I guess, especially in the environment of the '70s, but the intriguing part was that Carlito actually did manage to keep his nose clean — until his lawyer talked him into helping with the prison break (and the murder the lawyer planned to commit).

After being brought in for interrogation, Carlito heard a tape of his lawyer agreeing to sell him out. From that point, it was a race to see if Carlito and Gail could escape.

I felt it was a B–level story, average if not mediocre, with a mostly A–level cast. The personnel was too good for the material but never quite rose above it. That wasn't for lack of trying, and I will concede that Brian de Palma's direction helped, but I had seen enough of his earlier movies to recognize some of his signature filmmaking tricks.

De Palma had been making movies for 25 years when he made "Carlito's Way," and he had grown comfortable with certain camera angles and other techniques he relied on to manipulate the emotions of the viewers.

It's never been a secret that, as a young director, de Palma was influenced by the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. In recent years, he has said he outgrew that as a director, but I'm not convinced. When he began saying that he was past his Hitchcock phase, it was after "Carlito's Way" was in the theaters, and I definitely saw some Hitchcock–inspired moments in that one. Someone who had seen several of his earlier movies could recognize his touch; those who had not seen many of his movies were probably impressed and apt to rate the movie highly.

Clearly, at least in "Carlito's Way," de Palma was also influenced by Bob Fosse — particularly Fosse's closing sequence in "All That Jazz" in which the lead character hallucinated as he died. Some folks probably thought it was a creative touch, not realizing it was recycled.

But I found it to be, in many ways, a routine re–telling of the gangster's tale — and of de Palma's movies in general.