Carlito Brigante (Pacino) has just left jail after a decade, and is determined to go straight. But everything around him conspires to pull him back into a cycle of violence and crime.
It's 1975 in New York: hot pants have replaced mini-skirts, disco dancers have forsaken pot for cocaine, the O'Jays are on the soundtrack and crime is a going business. Carlito Brigante (Pacino) is out of jail and on the streets in his calf-length leather coat after smarmy lawyer Kleinfeld (Penn) has busted the government's case against him. Carlito takes over the management of a club in Spanish Harlem, pockets loose cash that comes his way after he's accidentally mixed up in a shoot-out, gets non-commitally together with old gang buddies, and makes a play for his ex-girlfriend (Miller).
Everyone wonders when Carlito will get back into the rackets, but he insists he wants to save up enough money to invest in a legitimate business — a car rental firm in the Bahamas. Slowly, the pressure builds up on the ex-gangster to get back into crime. When Kleinfeld's dealings with the mafia threaten meltdown unless a mob boss is sprung from a prison barge, Carlito feels a terrible obligation to the man who gave him his second chance, and so agrees to go along on a midnight cruise to fish the godfather out of New York harbour. With De Palma and Pacino back together in an Hispanic-flavoured gangster epic ten years after Scarface, the expectation here is for wall-to-wall death-o-rama. While De Palma is never one to stint on the blow and the broads, Carlito's Way, adapted by David Koepp from novels by Judge Edwin Torres, is comparatively light on the blood. Unusually, the film resurrects the post-Hays Code gangster movie plot of the former hoodlum desperately trying to stay straight, allowing the hero to be as tough a mother as he used to be, but also enough of a good guy to be sympathetic.
Pacino's Carlito is a wonderfully haggard, desperately reformed man. Quietly ashamed of his former excess and flawed by his lack of cold-hearted viciousness, he narrates in flashback from a first scene shooting (which recalls Serpico), aware that his attempt to stay clean is doomed. Though the relationship with Miller, a Broadway wannabe working as a topless dancer, is formulaic, everything else in the movie clicks perfectly. Penn, with a receding wire-wool haircut, redeems his career as a lawyer slime spinning out of control, and there are gems of strutting latino villainy from Luis Guzman, John Leguizamo and Viggo Mortensen.
De Palma, still atoning for Bonfire Of The Vanities, demonstrates here that when he's in the mood he can be a virtuoso show-off but still tell a story. An early scene in a poolroom as a drug deal goes wrong while Pacino performs a trick shot is an absolute model of suspense, and the final chase, through the New York subway to Grand Central Station, chews your nerves for nearly 15 minutes of near-misses and shocks before the actual violence. A gangster biggie, this one is there with a bullet.
Utterly compelling - Sean Penn is a powerhouse in support - and with a railway station set - piece in which De Palma actually betters what was his previously Untouchable effort.