Directed by Brian DePalma, Carlito's Way is a realistic story of Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), a hardened Puerto Rican criminal who has just been gotten out of jail early by his dedicated lawyer, Kleinfeld (Sean Penn). Carlito has learned his lesson in jail and is dedicated to going straight. He feels a great loyalty to Kleinfeld for going above and beyond the call of duty to get him out early, so when Kleinfeld asks him to get a nightclub running properly "as a favor", Carlito agrees. He figures this is a way to repay his friend and get some legitimate start up funds before he runs a car sales business somewhere warm and sunny.
Unfortunately for Carlito, his friend Kleinfeld is a real slimeball. Carlito has to deal with an up-and-coming punk, Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo) who he thinks is just an obnoxious kid trying to act tough. Carlito seeks out his old girlfriend, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) who has dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer - but has had to resort to stripping to pay the bills. There are many poignant scenes where Gail wishes her reality were different, and desperately hopes to get Carlito away from the friends who she is sure will bring him trouble or death.
Kleinfeld, a coke-head and thief, gets into more and more trouble, and turns to Carlito to bail him out. Carlito knows this is going to be bad, but he still feels the obligation of having been freed and goes along for the ride. Soon the Italian mafia is after the two of them. Carlito does his best to cut and run, to escape with Gail - but this movie is laid out to be a tragedy from the beginning and watching it unfold is both beautiful and heartbreaking.
Viggo Mortensen has a short but memorable role as Lalin - once a handsome power-man in the Hispanic mob scene but now reduced to cutting deals with the cops from a wheelchair. He snivels to Carlito that he feels worthless now that he can't walk, and begs for Carlito to just kill him. Carlito - either feeling sorry for him or feeling that life was enough punishment - lets him go.
I loved the power and poetry of this movie. It's an in-the-streets mob film, but it's not about the violence. There is actually very little shown. Instead, it's about the way human lives are degraded, about the things the street will drive a man to do even if he wants to live a moral life. There's even a scene of Carlito telling Gail about a fight he had when he was 13 - that he didn't want to fight, but he did want to live and had to defend himself. They talk about how you do the best you can with what life throws at you.
I found the actors all to be quite stunning in their roles. That being said, I found it extremely odd that this movie is all about hispanic characters - but that pretty much none of the actors (except Luis Guzman) were actually hispanic. Al Pacino is of course Italian - and there's a funny scene when he's talking with the Italian mob where they comment that they thought he was Italian based on his looks. Sean Penn is rather transformed as a Jewish lawyer with receding, frizzy hair. Viggo is definitely not hispanic! It makes you wonder, surely with all of the hispanic people in the world, they could have found high quality hispanic actors for these roles. Did they not look or try?
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