"A MOVIE OF GREAT STYLE & ENERGY"
Last week, C.J. Smith at VHS Revival revisited Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way. Here's an excerpt:
Carlito’s Way is a movie of great style and energy, one that delights in the heady decadence of the disco scene while mired in the scum of the barrio, a place described as being ‘like them old cowboy movies, only instead of tumbleweed and cow dung we got stripped car wrecks and dog shit.’ Since Carlito went away, things have changed, and although some of those old faces remain, they look at him differently, and those who came up while he was gone have no respect for what went before. Respect for ones peers is a thing of the past it seems – and perhaps never existed; the moral code to which Carlito clings appears to be illusory.
Whether that was always the case we will never know. Carlito is a new man having beat a thirty year rap on a Kleinfeld-spun technicality, and when his old partner Rolando scoffs at this notion, you can only imagine what Carlito had been like before his sentence took him out of the game. The only window we have into that part of our protagonist’s life is through the people who now fill it. The movie features a wonderfully colourful cast, both lead and supporting, characters who are laced with slick and sleaze, while the bold and brightly coloured become dulled by greed and desperation.
Perhaps the most blatant hint at the person Carlito is trying to escape is young hothead Bennie Blanco, who boldly introduces himself as being ‘from The Bronx’. Bennie is a brash up-and-comer with a devil moustache and sinister glare, the kind of full-throttle delinquent who will either crash prematurely or rampage his way to the very top. Bennie is reminiscent of another De Palma character – Tony Montana from Scarface – and you can imagine this movie as kind of a quasi-sequel. Bennie seems to be smarter than your average thug, with the sense and ambition to offer Carlito some restraint as he sets about picking his brains. Of course, Carlito isn’t interested. He simply wants to take enough out of the club he has invested in to escape the streets that stalk him at every turn. He sees himself in Bennie and resents him for it, and eventually his ego takes hold as the new kid in town flaunts his growing power on his premises. Carlito is who Montana could have been had he been stopped in his tracks before he careened over the proverbial canyon.
In spite of these parallels, Carlito’s Way is very much a different animal. Unlike Pacino and De Palma’s previous foray into the world of crime, the movie is free of political leanings, extricated from the vengeful scribe of screenwriter Oliver Stone – but that doesn’t mean the screenplay is any less quotable. Adapted from a novel of the same name, the film is saturated in Elmore Leonard style prose, punchy and lyrical, with the kind of pulp poignancy which adds a peculiar depth to a world spray tagged with grandiose caricatures. Hypnotised by our protagonist’s narration, we are led wandering through a cinematic dreamworld, so dazzled by the poetic deceit and colourful language that we are unable to see the path in front of us, and by the time we arrive at our hero’s fated destination we fail to see it coming.