As a director, Brian De Palma is never happier than when he can stop the show for one of his intricately executed, have-camera-will-travel suspense scenes, the kind that allow him to imagine, for a few heady moments, that he really is Alfred Hitchcock. His new thriller, Carlito’s Way (R), climaxes with a supremely exciting, 10-minute-long sequence in which the hero, a retired New York Puerto Rican drug dealer named Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), is chased through subway cars and Grand Central Station by a relentless posse of underworld goons. The fluorescent-lit train is jammed with passengers, and there’s something at once scary and funny in the image of the wily-eyed Carlito trying to act casual as he bounds nervously from car to car, his beefy would-be assassins trailing only a few steps behind him. Exiting the subway, Carlito and his pursuers play cat and mouse amid the corridors of Grand Central and end up firing at one another while riding up and down a pair of escalators. You can feel De Palma’s joy at devising this ingeniously kinetic showdown—at liberating himself from the pesky burden of plot, dialogue, character.
Speaking of which, Carlito’s Way is a competent and solidly unsurprising urban-underworld thriller: De Palma’s imitation of a middle-drawer Sidney Lumet movie. Carlito, a fabled heroin dealer, is released from prison after serving 5 years of a 30-year sentence (it turns out he was convicted through the use of illegal wiretaps). Tired and middle-aged, he wants out of the business; he’s lost the juice for it—for the risks, the killing. It’s the mid-’70s, the era of cocaine, fast sex, and disco glitz, and Carlito takes a job running a dance club partially owned by his oldest and most trusted comrade, the coke-addled mob lawyer David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn). Carlito’s plan is to make some quick cash and move out of the country. But he is dragged down by his roots—by his hair-trigger survivor’s instincts, honed while he was still a switchblade-wielding street kid, and by his loyalty to Kleinfeld, who tricks Carlito into helping him execute a mob hit.
Scene for scene, Carlito’s Way is a smoother piece of filmmaking than Scarface (1983), the only other picture De Palma has made with Pacino. But that bloody, lopsided cocaine thriller had a memorable attraction: the itchy hostility of Pacino’s performance as Tony Montana, the Cuban crime boss who was such a glowering, paranoid fireball that he was like a walking id. Here, playing a criminal who turns out to be a deeply honorable man, Pacino is trying for something quieter and more emotional; with his beard and weary stare, he resembles that earnest mensch Ron Silver. Unfortunately, David Koepp’s script, based on two novels by New York State Supreme Court justice Edwin Torres, doesn’t give Pacino enough to work with. In an early courtroom scene, the actor engages in some grandstanding fireworks (though he never does get a handle on Carlito’s accent), and physically he’s as coiled and spry as ever. Yet the character as written is so morosely well-intentioned that he’s a bit dull. Watching Carlito’s Way, I never really believed that a heroin dealer and coolly pragmatic killer could be such a simple, romantic guy.
I also didn’t believe he’d be hanging out with a weasel like Kleinfeld. The bond between these two is a conceit, a jerry-built plot convenience. Still, there’s no denying that it’s fun to see Sean Penn ham it up again. Sporting endless sideburns, thinning curly red locks, and a pair of John Lennon specs, Penn turns Kleinfeld’s ugly-nerd facade into a form of armor. This geek’s secret strength lies in his ability to hide what he’s thinking, a skill that melts away as soon as he gets strung out on coke. If anything, I wish Penn had played up the freakishness even more, but his energetic performance keeps you watching. And Penelope Ann Miller wrings all the passion she can out of the poorly conceived role of Carlito’s angelic dancer girlfriend, who manages to moonlight as a stripper and still seem like a virgin. Carlito’s Way is perfectly okay entertainment, yet this 2-hour-and-21-minute movie never convinced me it wouldn’t have been every bit as good (if not better) as a lean and mean Miami Vice episode. By now, the spiritual crises of Hispanic drug dealers are something we’ve all lived through one too many times. B