Temptation is terrible. Leading a better life is an impossibility when so many around you are coaxing you back to the life you led before. Carlito’s Way showcases that beautifully. Just holding on for a moment or two longer, and Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) would hold a life worth leading. His reputation precedes him, and that is the issue he now deals with. Looking to live on the straight and narrow, Brigante cannot. He is roped back into the fold, time and time again. An odd job here or there, paying his dues or protecting those he respects. It is all fair and fine until the bullets start firing, and considering this is a piece from Brian De Palma, it is not long until they do so.
“Somebody’s pulling me close to the ground,” Brigante says. Is it not he himself that stays low and grounded? It feels like it, but Brigante has seen the light, so to speak. He is terrified. Sitting in on a small drug deal, he sees the crack of a door off in the corner. Those moments would not cause him so much concern if he weren’t actively attempting to stay clean for the sake of his future. He lingers around the wrong crowd, so it is no surprise he is roped back into the crime world he tries so desperately to avoid. He is friendly with those that watched out for him, and there is a sense he is out mingling with them because of the respect he has for them. They looked out for him, and it would be rather cutting if he did not do the same.
That much is cemented well, more through the direction from De Palma than the craftsmanship Pacino displays. Those lingering cameras tie the scene together. Pacino looks truly miserable, bags under the eyes and an uncontrollably wild temper. Magnificent stuff, perhaps one of his finest performances of all. His range is imperceptible, and as he bounces around the screen, looking for those who attempt to frame him, the audiences are left to take in the beauty of New York City. Stunning shots are frequent. De Palma uses the bustling landscape to his advantage, especially in the apartment of David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn). Most of the control in these scenes is found through presenting a realistic environment, with diegetic sound in the seedy nightclubs, the occasional crack of gunfire and the paranoid leading man struggling to figure out who is with him and who is against him.
With an unrecognisable Penn and some solid supporting work from Viggo Mortensen, Carlito’s Way gives us the strongest collaboration of Pacino and Palma. They worked well in Scarface, but the decade of downtime that preceded Carlito’s Way spurs on everything the two got right. It hits upon that essential relationship between director and star, with the two working seamlessly alongside one another to bring life to a character who is not all that dissimilar to Tony Montana of Scarface fame. The crucial difference, though, is that this is not about a rise to the top, Carlito’s Way is about the fallout after a criminal comes crashing down, and exposed to reality, De Palma and Pacino are free to tap into the insecurities and weaknesses of a former tough guy.