Carlito’s Way offers a far more complex and interesting portrait of rising above corruption than what De Palma provided in Scarface. The two films follow a very similar arc, though it’s in structure and pacing that Carlito’s Way is far superior. The film begins where it ends; with Carlito (Al Pacino) narrating what seems to be his death. The narrative then begins with Carlito being released from prison after five years, vowing to lead a chaste and legitimate life. Immediately placed back in his old neighborhood, Carlito discovers that it’s easier said than done, as he is in the center of a violent shoot out that claims the life of his nephew (who notes that Carlito is seen as a local hero). Carlito eventually opens a club with another financial backer named Saso, where his attempts to legitimize his life are met with other obstacles – a cocky young gangster named Benny (John Leguizamo) seeks approval (and revenge) after an encounter with Carlito. Meanwhile, Carlito contends with his doper lawyer (Sean Penn) and attempting to rekindle a relationship with his ex lover (Penelope Ann Miller).
A lot goes on in the film, yet De Palma rarely misses a beat. He manages to pump so much life into the scenery, making for an extremely entertaining and viscerally engaging picture. So many genres blend together seamlessly through the film, being part love story, part revenge drama, both of which are mashed with themes of loyalty to friends and family. In a lot of ways, the film is a precursor to something like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (there is a night club scene in Carlito’s Way that reminded me of Anderson’s virtuoso opening scene in Boogie Nights). The film’s final act borrows from Melville’s Le Samourai , with equal results. Given how much is going on in the film, it’s a wonder that it functions at all – yet it functions as both a genuinely thrilling Hollywood escapist film and an excellent formal exercise in filmmaking.