Carlito’s Way (1993)

An underrated and fatalistic crime drama led by the Scarface De Palma-Pacino combo, with Sean Penn giving a superlative supporting performance.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,160

Dir. Brian De Palma
1993 | USA | Crime/Drama/Thriller | 144 mins | 2.35:1 | English & Spanish
M18 (passed clean) for strong violence, drug content, sexuality and language 

Cast: Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller
Plot: A Puerto Rican former convict, just released from prison, pledges to stay away from drugs and violence despite the pressure around him.
Awards: Nom. for 2 Golden Globes – Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress; Official Selection (Berlinale)
International Sales: Fortissimo Films

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Crime, Redemption
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Netflix
Spoilers: No

One of Brian De Palma’s underrated works, Carlito’s Way is great cinema, a fatalistic crime drama that some feel is the ‘B-side’ to Scarface (1983), which also stars Al Pacino in the lead role. Truth be told, I like this a bit better than that ‘80s gangster classic, perhaps because it has a more elegiac treatment towards a life in crime. 

Here we have a reflective Pacino who plays Carlito, an infamous mobster who gets an early release five years into his 25-year prison sentence but decides to really change for the better, vowing a life of honest living.  He dreams of saving enough money to operate a car rental business in the Bahamas. 

He owes his new lease of life, of course, to his conniving lawyer, Kleinfeld, played by the superlative Sean Penn in a slippery supporting performance that is right up there as one of his finest—he’s so good that you can’t even see the actor in it.  Penelope Ann Miller, who plays Carlito’s long-time love interest with troubles of her own, is also fantastic. 

“There is a line you cross, you don’t never come back from.”

Carlito’s Way starts with the ending, yet despite knowing how things will turn out (though De Palma has a trick or two up his sleeves), the film is utterly compelling. 

The stretched-out climax involving trains and a railway station is a tour de force, a true triumph of suspense directing—if you think what De Palma accomplished with the baby carriage-cum-shootout sequence in The Untouchables (1987) was astounding, wait till you see this. 

At times wistful, yet also violent when it needs to be, Carlito’s Way deserves to come out of the shadow of Scarface (much like the similar problem with Scorsese’s Casino in relation to Goodfellas) and be recognised as one of the great American crime films of the ‘90s made by a filmmaker who knew exactly what he was doing. 

Grade: A-



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