Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, James Rebhorn, Luis Guzman, John Leguizamo
Director: Brian De Palma
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 145 Minutes
Release Date: September 2, 2003


Film ****

Ten years had passed since Al Pacino and director Brian De Palma helped to create Scarface. Released in 1983, it was quite possibly the most daring movie of its time concerning its excessive violence, drug use, and profanity. It was a monumental movie which helped both Pacino and De Palma cross over to the big time. But who would’ve thought that the film to reunite the two would not only exceed the aforementioned movie, but also result in what is still to this day, in my honest opinion, De Palma’s greatest cinematic achievement?

Carlito’s Way is one of the most masterful character pieces to ever grace the screen, in addition to being an ultra-stylish crime thriller. Of all filmmakers, Brian De Palma is one whose films guaranteed a visual edge to them, and never before has there been a clearer example than in this film. His unique technical tricks are here in almost every scene, helping to maneuver perhaps the strongest script he’s ever had to apply his directorial vision to. De Palma does an astounding job of re-creating the look and feel of New York City in the mid-1970s.

Like Scarface, it paints a portrait of a veteran crime lord, although one not as menacing and power-hungry as Tony Montana. This wholly different gangster character is one grounded a little more in reality, where as Scarface was more or less the exploration of a man who didn’t know how to be anything else other than over the top. The main difference is that the characterization is a man who wants nothing more than to rid himself of the drug and criminal lifestyle, which is something Tony Montana would never consider for a second.

“I am free at last, free at last…THANK GOD ALMIGHTY, I AM FREE AT LAST!!!”

Pacino finds that unbeatable right note in his portrayal of Carlito Brigante, a former NYC drug runner who, following a five year stint in prison, vows to go legit and start a whole new life for himself. Carlito is lucky considering he was freed after only five years. His prison sentence was intended for thirty years, which was cut short due to a technicality on the part of the prosecution. Carlito is overwhelmed by this opportunity, and is forever grateful to his lawyer and close friend, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn).

Wanting to be nothing more than a reformed citizen, Carlito plans to make some quick getaway money so that he can hook up with an associate in the Bahamas to rent cars to tourists. As part of financing this plan, for which he will need at least $75,000, Carlito takes up a job a flashy disco club that Kleinfeld has already put some investment into. As it turns out, his new job makes him vulnerable to the kinds of people he doesn’t want anything to with, which are various lowlifes and young up and comers in the underworld, who Carlito sees as nothing more than punks. Such an example is the self-titled Benny Blanco From the Bronx (John Leguizamo), whose hotheaded antics do nothing but bring out the worst in Carlito.

When he comes across his former flame, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), Carlito sees an opportunity to fix a broken romance. Prior to his time in prison, the two were very much in love, only to have it shattered by Carlito’s business and being sent to prison. Gail, now a dancer at a Broadway strip club, still has feelings for him, but at the same time doesn’t want to have her heart broken, nor see him killed, which is the fate of many men in Carlito’s former line of work.

“If you can’t see the angles no more…you’re in trouble.”

The turning point in the story comes when Carlito is pressured by Kleinfeld into assisting in an unexpected criminal endeavor. Kleinfeld, who has succumbed to heavy cocaine use, has many low life clients. One of which, an imprisoned mafia boss, knows that Kleinfeld ripped him off when he gave the lawyer a million dollars to deliver to the boss’ son, which was claimed to have never been delivered. Believing Kleinfeld ripped him off, the mob boss orders the lawyer to use his boat to assist in prison escape. Carlito, wanting to say no but feeling like he owes his friend, agrees to tag along, a move he will soon regret.

No Brian De Palma film would be complete without a few elaborately staged sequences, and Carlito’s Way manages to have three of them, which add up to some of the best work De Palma has ever delivered. The first comes early in the film when Carlito accompanies his cousin unwillingly to a drug house. From the moment he walks in, he can sense a potential hit is about to occur. The end result is an intense shootout sequence that is all the more gripping because of the superb level of buildup applied.

The second is the prison break sequence where Kleinfeld is attempting to pick up the mob boss who has threatened him. The prison happens to be Riker’s Island, which is said to have a rough tide at night, which is when the escape attempt takes place. This sequence always induces a gut wrenching jolt, mostly because it reveals a key side to Kleinfeld that hadn’t existed before.

“A favor gonna’ kill you faster than a bullet.”

Lastly, there is the remarkable climax which ranks as one of the all time best action set pieces. This sequence has Carlito being pursued by some Mafioso thugs in and around Grand Central station. Never before has a pivotal action chase scene been done with this much craftsmanship and ultimate nail-biting tension. The sequence alone illustrates why Brian De Palma is such a masterful director, as the camera follows Carlito in his every move in this superb sequence of cat and mouse that’s reminiscent of a key scene from De Palma’s The Untouchables.

In terms of acting, Carlito’s Way boasts some of the greatest performances to ever be delivered by its actors. What Al Pacino proved here so terrifically is that he can portray any type of gangster there is, where as Carlito Brigante is totally sympathetic. He is very human in the way he acknowledges the mistakes he’s made in the past, and you absolutely buy into the notion of him wanting to go straight.

As for Sean Penn, this performance is nothing short of a tour de force. Penn, who was also memorable in De Palma’s Casualties of War, goes to strong acting extremes as a man whose behavior boarders on both fear and pure insanity. In addition, Penn is astoundingly unrecognizable, donning receding curly hair and glasses that suggest a mixture of John Lennon and Art Garfunkel. His performance here remains one of his all time best to this day.

“Last of the Mo-Ricans…well, maybe not the last.”

Both a masterful gangster thriller and a powerful character piece, Carlito’s Way is one of the absolute best marriages of performance and directing, with the best talent working in both areas.

Video ****

Universal’s first release of this movie on DVD was that of a non-anamorphic transfer, which was the case of just about all of De Palma’s movies at that point. The picture wasn’t by any means horrible, but was in much need of some adjustments. Now, with this re-issuing, Universal has made all the wrong areas right in every way, resulting in one of the best re-issues of recent memory, alongside Scarface.

The anamorphic transfer is as ultimately alive as De Palma’s camera. The picture quality is a hundred percent flawless in terms of sharpness, detail, and color display. Even in some tricky sets (a good portion of the movie takes place at night), such as indoor club scenery, dark lit areas, and extreme color use, such as one scene which uses a lot of red lighting, the picture soars at every inch. I commend Universal on a job well done on a release which was so much in need of a new look.

Audio ***1/2

Any of you who happened to own the first disc will note that although the box indicated the audio was that of a 5.1 track, it was actually a 2.0 sound mix. This time around, Universal delivers the sound quality it promised with a stellar 5.1 channel mix, which is a strong and superb listen. The level of sound quality is undeniably high, especially in the various action set pieces, but thanks to a helping of 70s disco-era classics, the sound quality is dynamic in additional areas, providing a superb instance of range that didn’t exist on the previous disc. Outstanding job!

Features **

True, it does have a Collector’s Edition label, but not enough to rank it with the usual line of C.E.’s from Universal. On the brighter side, it does include a slight bonus in the form of a well done featurette and a photo gallery, to accompany the terrific trailer for the movie, which was the only extra on the first release.


As far as gangster flicks go, Carlito’s Way, for me, is one of the best of the bunch, if not the best. It is most definitely, and to this day, Brian De Palma’s signature masterpiece, blending his gift of style with a brilliantly written story with some ever-so-strong characters.