Extreme Ways

Ever have a tune stick to your mind like chewing gum on the sole of a shoe?

That would make a kickass opening for a discussion of some music album I really love, right? Maybe with a couple of heartwarming anecdotes about music-as-backdrop-to-formative-years?

Not!

It’s a film we’re going to discuss. And it’s not a new film. And it won’t even be the first film that comes to your mind when I say
“Al Pacino headlining a seedy gangster plot.”

Or the second film, for that matter. Maybe not even the third, if you count all the Godfather films as-

So, then. Carlito’s Way.

I saw this movie nearly two years ago, to be honest with you. Tonight I was merely cruising through Pacino’s filmography, wondering if I could spare the three hours it would take to absorb Heat, when out jumped this one from the middle of some list.

One scene from this movie, in particular.

I will talk at some length about that scene, since it’s right at the beginning, but if you’re A.) already bored to tears or B.) have zero tolerance for pre-movie hype (you snooty bastard), let’s get this out of the way: It’s a good movie. Possibly a Great movie, if you go by that sort of crap. Watch it.

He might not have Godfather’s thorough character arc or Scarface‘s over-the-top-coked-up-shenanigans to work with, but Pacino brings enough charm and dignity to make for a memorable performance, and Sean Penn is able (incredibly) to make his over-the-top-coked-up-shenanigans support rather than upstage-

So, then. Carlito’s Way.

The scene I want to talk about is right near the beginning (if not the actual first sequence, I dunno). A man named Carlito stands before a judge, strutting and grandstanding as only Al Pacino can:

I’ve been cured! Born again […] Your Honour, I mean it. This is the truth. I changed. I changed, and it didn’t take no thirty years like Your Honour thought, but only five. That’s right, sir, five years. And look at me. Completely rehabilitated, reinvigorated, reassimilated […] and I want to thank a lot of people for that. […] I want to thank you, sir, for making the tapes in an illegal fashion. I would like to thank the Court Of Appeals, for reversing you, Your Honour. And I want to thank Almighty God without whom no case gets tossed.

The beardy guy looks like a hardened criminal. The judge is constantly rolling his eyes throughout. But beneath Carlito’s casual contempt there lies a certain desperation.

You see, he knows his own people are all ex-cons to whom the whole performance would look like yet another middle finger to authority. Hell, even the lawyer who just got him off has a latent coke addiction waiting to spiral out of control (Sean Penn, unrecognizable in a godawful hairdo, but really good).

The judge, on the other hand. represents a system that seeks to reform him, to change him.

And how Carlito has changed.

I will not divulge the plot, but there are some torturous choices arising out of the protagonist’s resolve to go straight.

Each time he suffers another setback, each time he is nudged a little closer to snapping, we reach back to that one scene in the courtroom and realize how serious that beardy hardened criminal guy actually was.

Sure, he talks a good game. Mouths off to the fuzz because that’s what you do, hey. But Carlito is ready to leave a world that keeps grabbing for his ankles and is loathe to let go.

The central character’s reluctance to play along turns the slo-mo-shootout bullcrap on its head, so it all works as a sad, wise commentary upon the loud bangs that usually punctuate a gangster flick’s soundtrack.

I have never seen an action movie more fixated on consequence.

The director, Brian de Palma, specializes in glitzy long shots that don’t hinder narrative flow; some visuals involving a boat are as iconic as the courtroom scene (although for more readily apparent reasons).

Speaking of slo-mo-bullcrap, there is also a brief sequence involving live bullets (rather than spent cartridges) falling through the air in slow motion.

I found it beautiful because
A.) It is such a wickedly clever sendup of our standard shootouts, and
B.) it carries more dramatic tension and plot repercussions than your average minutes-long gun battle could ever hope to sustain.

So, then. Carlito’s Way.

Al Pacino has possibly given better performances than this (I’ve yet to check out Scent of a Woman) but man, it is hard not to root for a gangster who takes the same stance on violence that any screen-hugging-couch-dweller most of us would.

What I’m saying is, this movie will draw you in and probably keep you hooked to the end – the plot and acting are both top-notch, the visuals occasionally transcendent – but it is Carlito’s desperate attempts to keep on the straight and narrow that will haunt you.

It is a wonderfully human impulse to seek betterment at the cost of personal hardship; the movie simply illustrates what a  long, long way it can be.

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