Brian De Palma, like Michael Mann, consistently draws me into watching his movies with their premise and cast, then leaves me not disappointed as much as ambivalent. The images in De Palma’s films are striking, the characters are drawn simply, and the acting is usually superb. Though, somehow, De Palma has a knack for taking the air out of any moment of drama he creates. I have yet to be truly pulled into the world of his films or really care about any of his characters, just drawn in by the strong visual sense. To me, De Palma is an ‘auteur’ in the same sense as many Hollywood directors: their films do little for me beyond their visual style (which is constrained by the accepted guidelines of Hollywood filmmaking), but that style is noticeable and recognizable. Carlito’s Way had me prepared for the worst from its opening credits: hazy black and white footage of Pacino getting shot and rushed to the hospital accompanied by the most culturally confused voiceover I have come across. The voiceover, along with the score, were the most glaring and frustrating pieces of Carlito’s Way: again and again the attention grabbing excitement of the score destroys any sense of building dread or drama and Pacino seems to be several characters at once for the voiceover – an old Puerto Rican gangster in Harlem, a Black jazz musician, and Scarface in old age. But, what makes these aspects so frustrating is that they are both post-production additions and could have been altered. What De Plama has on film is strong performances from much of the cast, exciting visuals that build on the style De Palma carved out in Scarface, and more downright cool tracking shots than any film could need. But, the miscues in post-production mood-shaping consistently distract from the film this could be and alienate the viewer from the drama on film.
Bottom Line: That is not to say Carlito’s Way is not worth watching: the Grand Central finale is absolutely breathtaking and Sean Penn’s performance is initially offputting and his appearance laughable, but his character evolves into the emotional pivot of the film. But, lapses in the director’s judgement squander anything great this film could be.