Both protagonists share a self-declared integrity that proves their downfall. Tony Montana tells anyone who'll listen that he only has two things "my word and my balls" and quickly comes to believe his own publicity - comes to believe, in other words, that he's invulnerable. Carlito Brigante (Pacino) is fiercely loyal - a debt owed is one he's honour-bound to discharge. And he owes lawyer Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) big time.
Kleinfeld has exploited an irregularity in the District Attorney investigation that put Carlito behind bars, launching an appeal that gets him out after just five years of a thirty stretch. Determining to go straight, Carlito devotes himself to putting together the money he needs to buy a legitimate business. A favour to his cousin on his first day out sees him mixed up in drug deal that goes bad; within minutes there's bodies all over the place, Carlito's wounded and he's on a hiding right back to the slammer if he doesn't get out of there PDQ. On the plus side, with all the other participants dead, the $30K that finds its way into his pocket makes for a decent bit of start-up capital.
Another favour, to debt-addled nightclub owner Saso (Jorge Porcel), sees Carlito running the joint, assisted by Pachanga (the great Luis Guzman*). The money's coming in, he's rekindled a romance with old flame Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) and his dream of a normal life is looking more and more real. There are just two flies in the ointment.
One is Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo), a big-talking wannabe who's squeezing Sosa for money owed. Carlito has him ejected from the nightclub after he starts some shit but goes against his deeply ingrained instincts to whack Benny and instead lets him walk away.
The other is Kleinfeld. One of his clients, Tony Taglialucci (Frank Minucci), has a line of credit with Kleinfeld to the tune of a million dollars he entrusted to Kleinfeld to make a payoff but which went into the lawyer's back pocket. Taglialucci is terminally ill and doing time on the Riker's Island Prison Barge. It's his dying wish to break out. An inside man can get him off the barge. All he needs is someone to fish him out of the river. Kleinfeld owns a boat. Taglialucci orders Kleinfeld to liaise with his sons and be on the river at the appointed time. Convinced the Taglialucci boys will summarily dispose of him once their dad's safe and sound, Kleinfeld asks Carlito to repay the favour.
And Carlito has no choice but to help. As he puts it when Gail pleads with him not to get involved: "Dave is my friend. I owe him. That's what I am. Right or wrong, I can't change that."
Things go wrong. Kleinfeld, coked to the gills, takes matters into his own hands and crosses the line. Sosa tips Carlito off that Pachanga's loyalties are divided, then proves to be duplicitous himself when Carlito finds that money is missing from the club. Some made guys who were associated with Taglialucci want answers over the break-out snafu. Then the DA comes calling ...
If 'Scarface' is an exercise in surface value, 'Carlito's Way' is deeper, more considered, much more accomplished. Pacino's Carlito Brigante is introspective and complex where Tony Montana was extrovert and brutally simplistic. Carlito's relationship with Gail provides an emotional crux. In 'Scarface', the stakes were purely monetary. Here, they're infinitely higher. So when the net begins to tighten and Carlito's bid for freedom turns into a desparate race against both time and a bunch of men with guns, de Palma ratchets the tension to an unbearable level. In one extended, heart-pounding sequence, a battle of wits at the nightclub segues into a skin-of-the-teeth escape, leading to a tense subway pursuit and culminating in a cat-and-mouse showdown at Grand Central Station.
What makes de Palma's achievement so impressive is that he's already revealed how it ends - in the opening credits. Two hours spent building up to an ending the audience already know - and a real downer of an ending at that - yet you barely breathe for the fifteen minutes Carlito spends running for his life, running for a future summed up by three words on a poster; an advert; something crafted to fool people into believing.
*Amazingly, this is the first time I've featured a Luis Guzman film on the blog. He's one of those actors who automatically makes you smile when you see his name in the opening credits; you know, however else the film might pan out, that you're in for at least one great performance.