Brian De Palma and Al Pacino reunite on the ten year anniversary of their iconic crime film Scarface to bring us a similar but very different sort of mobster film. Carlito’s Way is a film about a man attempting to rid himself of the life he grew up in, was formed by, and the subsequent mechanisms that won’t allow him to. This is a much better film, in my opinion, than Scarface, mostly because Carlito is a much more likable character than Tony Montana, although both are hotheaded and prone to violence. Carlito, however, is a man determined to wade his way out of the life of crime, and in doing so causes himself more trouble than he ever had when he was actively engaged in the life.
We meet Carlito as he is getting out of jail after five years on what was supposed to be a thirty year stint. His exuberant proclamations to the judge and courtroom make him seem a self righteous lunatic, but we quickly learn that maybe it isn’t all bluster. He exclaims that he’s ready to get out of the life and that the law would never have any trouble from him again. And that turns out true. But what is tragic about his decision to make a change in his life is that it’s doomed to fail. Carlito was born into this life, raised by it, nurtured from his young years by it. The people he knows, the attitudes he has, the code he lives by are bred by the streets. And they are what kill him
Filling out the rest of the cast are some excellent actors including Sean Penn, Luis Guzman, John Leguizamo and plenty more. Each character is well fleshed out and believable. Sean Penn deserves special credit for his turn as the smarmy, impetuous lawyer Kleinfeld, who’s obsession with money and drugs, along with a penchant for aggressive behavior towards made men turn him into a gross, despicable caricature of a wannabe mobster who is quickly found squirming for his life. Carlito owes Kleinfeld a great debt, and his moral code prescribes undying loyalty to those that do right by him, even if those people ultimately do not return the same respect. This leads Carlito into making bad decisions for the sake of helping his friends, moves that will destroy him.
The film is a true tragedy. We come to really like Carlito, sympathize with his quest. Although clearly self righteous and overly exuberant, we want him to get out and keep his life. De Palma makes the decision to show Carlito getting gunned down at the start of the film, so we are aware from the start just how doomed his mission is.
We watch it unfold in a couple different ways. He can’t help but show disrespect to a young up and coming gangster, Benny Blanco from the Bronx (John Leguizamo), who he finds ardently rash and more than a little rude. Carlito spurns him because he sees Blanco as beneath him, street trash not deserving of the status he attained by being respectful and polite. This may have been fine, had Carlito been willing to follow through and actually kill Benny, but this is a new Carlito. He lets him live. The old Carlito leads him to engage with this young gangster and make an enemy, but the new Carlito won’t allow him to finish him off for good, thus sealing his death. This is the crux of the film. Carlito tries to get out but his very nature is tuned towards the street life than bore him. It is simply a dooomed mission.
Carlito’s inability to let go of the instincts that he gained through his life of crime are what destroys him. There’s a saying I’ve heard numerous times that I think sums of the film quite well: “You can take the nigga out the hood, but you can’t take the hood out the nigga”.