the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Carlito's Way (1993)

DePalma's Way

    Brian Depalma is the Ralph Lauren of film: prolific, successful and unoriginal. He shares the clothing magnet's knack for turning uninspired reproduction into an artform. Mr. Lauren evokes the past by replacing the context of history with his guess as to what the public will gobble-up that particular year. His annual pretentious appropriations are startling for their shear randomness (19th century England, Czarist Russia, the old West…). Mr. Depalma work shares this whimsical arrogant derivativeness. In fact he augments the crime. Instead of borrowing the general look of a particular era he usurps the specific recognized masterpieces of renowned directors: Eisenstien's Battleship Potemkin, Hitchcock's Vertigo and Psycho , Antoninio's Blow Up, Howard Hawks' Scarface. The results are limp counterfeits. It is hard to image anyone finding Dressed to Kill and Body Double more compelling than Hitchcock's originals. The same is true of Scarface; aside of a riveting opening sequence Depalma manages to double the length and produce less than half the thrill. The staircase shootout in The Untouchables is a classic Depalmaism. In the middle of a remake of a cult film noire serial the director decides to pay homage to a revolutionary (in both senses) Russian director. Einsenstien portrayed the birth of the Bolshevik uprising. The proletariat are brutally massacred on the staircase by the Czar's troops. It is impossible to fathom any correlation to Al Capone's Chicago. Mr. Depalma, to my knowledge, has remained silent and the film fails to offer a clue. Blow Out (the reworking of Blow Up) was an abomination. This is an exquisite example of a Ralph Lauren Channel suit.

    Mr. Depalma's newest work is Carlito's Way. It is less and more of the same; less blatant in its borrowings but uninspired and unoriginal nevertheless. There are touches of Serpico, Saturday Night Fever, The French Connection and once again Einsenstien's staircase scene from The Battleship Potemkin. This time its on an escalator and, sensing when to say when, Mr. Depalma omits the icon baby carriage tumbling, unattended, down the steps. To give Mr. Depalma some credit the script left little chance of producing a first rate drama. David Keopp's script is based on two novels by Edwin Torres, a former judge. It is terrifying to think that someone on the front lines of the criminal justice system could present such callow portraits of outlaws. The absurd plot twists can be laid to Judge Torres's having a full time career on the bench. The central characters, Al Pacino as a former drug king pin and Sean Penn as a corrupt lawyer, are more difficult to justify. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Mafia, drug dealers and the criminal justice system would have to conclude that these men are products of startling meager artistic imagination. The fact that Judge Torres had numerous encounters with the real Mcoy makes these creations all the more shocking.

    Mr. Depalma uses Serpico, the exposition of corruption in the NYPD, as a guide. In both films, which are set during the 1970s, Al Pacino plays an honest man struggling to escape a corrupt milieu. The structures are nearly identical: Pacino is ambushed during the opening sequence which is followed by a flashback which sets the stage for the shooting. Sean Penn follows Pacino's lead in dredging up past performances. Although the make-up gives him the air of Alan Dershowitz the character evokes his other portrayal of a cocaine addict. (i.e. the snowman in The Falcon and the Snowman). Penelope-Ann Miller delivers a strong rendering which nearly lifts her character out of the chauvinistic conception of women as pathetic victims. The choice of working at a sleazy topless bar to support her ballet career was contrived. There are people who are forced to make these choices but the contrast of the angelic ballerina with the crass showgirl called to mind the male obsession of portraying women as either saints, whores or both. Given Judge Torres' renditions of convicts it should come as no surprise he holds this view of the opposite sex. In a sense Ms. Miller's choosing to take the part is a more realistic illustration of the pitfalls women face when pursuing a career in the arts. In short, all the leading performers were diligent professionals going through the motions. No one broke new ground; but then again Mr. Depalma has never been know as an innovator.

    Carlito's Way glides from one obvious set-up to another. The emphasis is on action, not reflection. All the protagonists are troubled souls who have developed harsh survival strategies in an unforgiving world. Ms. Miller's character chooses to be part of a girlie-show, Pacino's decides to go straight and Penn's goes to the devil. This unfortunate trio falls into a series of set-pieces. They duck bullets, escape enemies, lie, fight, flee, scheme… The missing element is the most essential: motivation. What possessed these desperate people to make these choices? The film skirts the issue. Carlito decides, after spending his life in crime, that he wants to rent cars in the Bahamas. Penn's character is incredulous and reprimands Carlito with a laughing smirk. Despite Carlito's sincerity the film retained a residue of the corrupt lawyer's skepticism. The motivation for Pacino's fore-running character, Frank Serpico, is crystal clear. He became a policeman in order to serve the public. That film also revealed the young officer's torment in challenging accepted codes of behavior. Carlito is more perplexing. His epiphany on the values of civic virtue is never illustrated. This makes the believability of his former life in crime hard to accept. There are countless badguys who pay homage to Carlito by recounting stories of his evil deeds but without any reflection by the man himself the effect is lost. It is impossible to reconcile the incongruity between the old "gangster" Carlito and the new "citizen" Carlito. Pacino's heartfelt portrayal is doomed because the screenwriters never show the real turning point in the story: Carlito's change of heart. How did he develop his "Way"? Carlito himself muses about being tired of the street carnage and life in prison might but a few sentences between action sequences does little to resolve the mystery. It is difficult to know what precipitated this dramatic turnaround. Was it because he was freed from jail early on a technicality? Did it occur after his arrest on the charges which brought him the long sentence? Was it the brutal death of his cousin, whom he allows to participate in a drug deal? Did he engage in criminal acts behind bars? The film never answers these questions making it impossible to understand the man.

    The same criticisms hold true for the other central players. Ms. Miller's character's life with the "old" Carlito is hard to imagine. She does not appear to be the type of person who would date a heroin king pin. Did she also undergo an grand epiphany? The artistic team behind this film sees this as an irrelevant issue. The corrupt lawyer is the least perplexing but even his actions are bizarre. It is understandable that a young naive criminal lawyer could become seduced by the flashy lifestyle of his clients. Mr. Penn's character, however, shows a hostility towards Carlito and his other clients which is never fully explained. Surprises are an integral part of the action-crime genre. A problem arises when such bombshells reveal character traits which are heretofore invisible. The result is a loss of credibility. The player becomes merely a pawn in a drawn-out movie fantasy. Perhaps this is the key to coming to terms with Depalma. Focus less on the characters and more on the theatrics.

    There were many moments which were genuinely exciting. The shoot-out in which his cousin is murdered is especially engaging. The tension builds as Carlito realizes they are being set-up. The editing and choreography are first rate. There are other fun moments but without good writing and  believable characters the film lacks staying power.  The problem lies in his methods of placing the violence in the context of a story. When his characters are attempting meaningful interaction there behavior becomes artificial. The Penn-Pacino friendship is a case in point but nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the love story. Miller and Pacino are strong performers but their romantic interludes in this film are brazenly synthetic. The closer they became the more the sterility grew. The final scene evoked a sense of relief for not having to suffer through another moment of saccharine drivel. This relationship showed the degree of Mr. Depalma's inability. This director is at his best when his screen characters are at their worst. If hitting, stabbing and shooting could sustain a drama then Mr. Depalma would rank among the cinematic legends. Unfortunately spicing his own films with recreated snippets of their work fails to mask Depalma's dearth of creativity. His vision seems ideally suited for a medium in which surface-flash counts for everything. He might become one of the great directors of commercial television spots but as a feature filmmaker he has firmly established himself as a hack.                      

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