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Carlito’s Way (Blu-ray Review)

17 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Carlito’s Way (Blu-ray Review)
Street 5/18/10
$26.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for strong violence, drug content, sexuality and language.
Stars Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, Luis Guzman.

After what seemed like a dry spell in late winter and early spring, a string of high-profile catalog titles has recently made its way to Blu-ray, including DreamWorks’ Saving Private Ryan (nice job, especially on the sound); Kino’s Battleship Potemkin (looking about as good as its aged torso can these days); and Universal’s Traffic (whose eyesore desert scenes late in the movie bleach out less than in previous home renderings). And Universal just released Out of Africa — which, like Ryan and Warner’s also newly issued knockout rendering of Doctor Zhivago, took the cinematography Oscar (by definition, this all but portends a Blu-ray event).

But of them all, I was most anxious to re-see Brian De Palma’s kinetic adaptation (script by David Koepp) of two Edwin Torres novels: Carlito’s Way and After Hours. In terms of movies about onetime outlaws trying to go straight but getting foiled by bad luck and bad punks, 1993's Carlito's Way is up there on my list of applicable favorites — one to be mentioned with Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950), which gave Gregory Peck one of his three greatest roles as ground-down gunslinger Jimmy Ringo.

In De Palma’s film, Al Pacino plays the title Puerto Rican hood less broadly than he played his famed Cuban creep in the director’s remake of Scarface — though, come to think, how many performances can you name that are more broad than the actor’s coke-fiendish take on Miami mob kingpin Tony Montana? In terms of arguable ham that never bothers me here, Pacino definitely floors his accelerator from time to time, yet it’s a performance of immense charm and certainly one that puts the audience in his pocket. The movie is, in fact, crammed with memorable turns all the way down to Paul Mazursky’s opening cameo as a disgusted judge forced by prosecutorial missteps to abort one of his most personally satisfying sentencings. But it’s the photographic interiors that make it this movie an enticing Blu-ray candidate, even though a fresh remastering wouldn’t have hurt.

De Palma floors his own accelerator with some of the nightspot reds here; if they don’t rate as highly on the lurid-o-meter as the crimsons in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, they sometimes get pretty close. One senses that the director just said, “let’s make the disco picture to end all disco pictures.” And why not in a movie that probably couldn’t exist without the wall-to-wall audio carpeting of Hues Corporation, KC & the Sunshine Band, Labelle and the rest of their glitzy brethren?

Purely for needed cash, Carlito agrees to manage his crooked lawyer’s disco joint — and even a pole-dancing scene in a 48th-and-Broadway strip joint is backed by disco, which is consistent with movie’s overall mood of wretched excess. On one of his frequent voiceovers, Carlito notes that grass prevailed as the recreational drug of choice went he went off to jail — but now, five years later, it’s cocaine that reigns following a period where so much else seemed to change as well. Certainly, you don’t go into any of the nightspots here and expect the patrons to be sipping Stroh’s.

As the lawyer, Sean Penn more than lives up to his wormy character’s jolting cosmetics (a perm, tiny glasses, receding hairline), which, according to one of the recycled-from-2005 Blu-ray extras, the actor came up with himself. The movie also represents something close to a career high for Penelope Ann Miller, who had all the components to become a much bigger star before though fortunes faltered as she approached 35 following also-memorable appearances in Biloxi Blues, The Freshman and Awakenings. (To say nothing of some infectiously giggle-ish encounters with David Letterman on his show.) Here, she’s an aspiring serious dancer who ends up working that 48th-and-Broadway pole, making a strong impression in relatively few scenes and compelling us to imagine her backstory.   

The movie gets so wild in the late going that we don’t even stop to think how hot-and-heavy in a literal sense its climactic violence is (in real life, the mayhem we witness would lead off the network news, but here it comes off as business as usual in the pre-Giuliani era). It’s also a good early showcase for character actor James Rebhorn. I used to think that James Tolkan’s D.A. in Prince of the City was the screen’s final word on white-collar lawmen who strut their stuff and not always to society’s benefit. But Rebhorn has that hardball persona down as well and really looks the part, a casting director’s dream.

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