There's a haggard integrity to Al Pacino's erratic performance as Carlito Brigante, a Puerto Rican drug dealer who gets out of jail on a legal technicality in 1975 after doing five years on a 30-year rap. It's been Carlito's way since he was 14 to fuck with the law to grab the American dream of "clothes, cars and pussy." Now his blood is up for a new plan: going straight. But the streets of Spanish Harlem are meaner than when he left them, and they're pulling him back in.
Pacino knows the feeling — hello, Godfather III. But something else is pulling director Brian De Palma back into the genre of coke and cojones. It's the need for a hit after the debacle of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Carlito's Way, adapted by David Koepp from two novels by Manhattan Judge Edwin Torres, doles out the requisite jolts of suspense, sex and action. But there's a secondhand feel to the way this gangster movie delivers the goods. Carlito's Way is haunted by a ghost from De Palma and Pacino's past — Scarface.
That 1983 outlaw epic was De Palma's Citizen Cocaine. Pacino roared through the role of drug czar Tony Montana, snorting coke, shooting cops and spitting out dialogue in a Cuban accent that crossed Desi Arnaz with Charo. "Scarface" was a smash; it was also a riveting mess. De Palma and writer Oliver Stone couldn't decide whether they loved or loathed this killer hothead. An instant cult decided for them. "Scarface" is still the high of choice on the video circuit. In 1991's New Jack City, the crack lord played by Wesley Snipes pops "Scarface" into his VCR for pointers.
Palma insists that the resemblances between Brigante and Montana are superficial. Yeah, right. Both are drug-dealing, Latino killers; both are hot for Waspy blondes (Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface, Penelope Ann Miller in Carlito's Way), both frequent dance clubs, and both end up in bloody gun battles. The copy-catting may pay off at the box office — but at a cost. De Palma lets the anguished core of the character Judge Torres wrote get buried in "Scarface" pyrotechnics.
Carlito dreams of running a car agency in the Bahamas, where he'll escape with Gail (Miller), a ballet dancer who's switched to stripping. It's an impossible role and cinches the title for the fresh-faced Miller (so fine in Broadway's Our Town) as Ms. Miscast of the '90s. She was the mob daughter in The Freshman (unlikely), the hard-case lawyer in Other People's Money (unlikelier) and now the exhibitionist in "Carlito's Way" (unbelievable). You can feel Miller's ache to cover up when she's dancing topless. It's painful to watch this ingTnue play femme fatale, asking Carlito to break down her door as a kinky prelude to sex. "I'm too old for this," says Carlito. So is De Palma, whose madonna-whore fantasies have made him a feminist target since Dressed to Kill in 1980.
Too many of the film's 144 minutes are wasted on this dud romance. De Palma excels in the streets and courts of Torres' books. Sparked by a knockout performance from Sean Penn as David Kleinfeld, Carlito's crooked, cokehead lawyer, these scenes jump off the screen. Kleinfeld is drawn to the glamour of crime without understanding the consequences. Jeff Goldblum played a similar role in Bill Duke's underrated Deep Cover. But Penn, nearly unrecognizable in curly red locks and receding hairline, gives the role a seismic charge. Kleinfeld is a paradigm of the excess that will breed the Scarfaces of the '80s, represented by John Leguizamo's feral Benny Blanco, a punk from the Bronx whom Carlito badly underestimates.
Carlito is a throwback to the days of honor among scum. The drug wars have raised brutality and betrayal to levels we see reflected on Pacino's eloquently ravaged face. It's that face that holds us even when Pacino's "Rican" accent slips into his Southern drawl from Scent of a Woman. It's that face that cuts through De Palma's erratic pacing and derivative shootouts. It's that face that shows what might have been if Carlito's Way had forged new ground and not gone down smokin' in the shadow of Scarface.