After former drug kingpin Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) is sprung from jail by his friend and high-powered attorney David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), he plans to go straight and earn enough money to leave New York for good. But his plans are undermined by misguided loyalties and an outdated code of honour and he fights for his chance to escape.
Carlito is a man who knows how to survive but that doesn’t mean he wants to continue to live a life of violence and drugs. Everyone doesn’t believe him when he says he’s retired from that life, friends, family, former associates or rivals and even the police. It’s sad and tragic because it’s often other people’s actions, whether they’re friend or foe, that force him to react and it puts him in tougher situations.
The whole vibe of Carlito’s Way is very stylish. From Carlito’s long black coat to the neon lights and dance music in his club it all comes together in a lively and colourful backdrop to the drama of these characters lives. The violence is bloody, the shoot outs exciting, and director Brian De Palma knows how to build the tension during foot chases.
The performances are great. Pacino is a charismatic lead and the way he can flip from being so calm to a sudden bust of violence is unsettling. After a while, thanks to a narration by him, you believe Carlito is truly trying to leave his old life, it’s just that no one else does so they are often on edge waiting for him to snap and he uses that to his advantage. Carlito’s relationship with dancer Grace (Penelope Ann Miller) is surprisingly soft and he appears to become the person he wants to be when he’s around her. As Pacino’s Carlito becomes mores calm, Penn’s weaselly Kleinfeld becomes more and more erratic.
Carlito’s Way is a melodramatic tragedy, but it hits all those beats so well that you can forgive the moments where it veers too far into the theatrical. While there’s naturally violence in this gangster movie, it’s also more thoughtful and emotional than one might first think. It often feels more of a character study of a flawed and dangerous man who is just trying to leave the life of crime behind, but the New York underworld won’t let him go without a fight. 4/5.