Carlito's Way: Rise to Power
When a movie is a hit the studios in their infinite wisdom know that have to do a follow up. Usually this is in the form of a sequel, following events that occur after the main film but sometimes they opt for the prequel, a look at the younger versions of the characters. This is the case for the newly released to DVD Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power. Although this film is based on the first in a series of novels by Edwin Torres it is best if you forget the original movie and take this one as a stand alone film. Jay Hernandez takes on the role made famous by Al Pacino. Carlito Brigante. As the film opens Carlito is musing over the old neighborhood while waiting for his release from prison. He grew up in New York City’s Spanish Harlem. There Puerto Ricans have settled in hopes of providing a better life for their children. They are also surrounded by two other very strong ethnic groups, the blacks on one side, the Italians on the other. There has traditionally been an air of bitter animosity between the three factions especially in the realm of criminal enterprises. Ironically Carlito has two cellmates in prison, a black man Earl (Mario Van Peebles) and a low level Italian mobster Rocco (Michael Kelly). The scene where we first see the trio is straight out of the Goodfellas with Rocco cooking a gourmet Italian meal for his friends. Rocco and Earl are more into the business side of crime, both feel that they are somewhat above the street wise Carlito. Still, they have a business opportunity for him. The mob has started to get into the lucrative heroin business and what to corner all three ethnic groups in upper Manhattan. Once the three are released Rocco brings his partners to meet with his boss, Artie (Burt Young) and his hot headed son Artie Jr. (Domenick Lombardozzi). They agree to supply the drugs for a piece of the profits and all seems right to Carlito. He is on the top of the world, commanding respect everywhere he goes. In one night spot he notices a man arguing with the coat check girl Leticia (Jaclyn DeSantis). Carlito is taken by her spirit and after a few refusals on Leticia’s part soon they are a couple, she just couldn’t refuse that age old allure many good girls find with the charming bad boy. Most of
Spanish Harlem is under the iron fisted rule of Hollywood Nicky (Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs), a man that is rich beyond most people’s dreams but never lost his street smarts. When he finds out that a minion is skimming a little off the top of the take Nicky goes into a crowded bar, shoots him dead, takes the money from his pocket and chats with the shocked patrons. He even goes so far as to order a soda and pays for it with the money he just took back, it’s not the money that is important, no one takes anything from Hollywood Nicky. Investigating crime in the neighborhood is a pair of cops called the Jeff Squad, Big Jeff (Tony Cucci) and Little Jeff (Giancarlo Esposito). They are not above using a tire iron to help get their way. Carlito may just want a peaceful business and the love of Leticia but with all the violence around him it is hopeless. Things heat up when Earl decides to retire and asks Carlito to take care of his militant brother Reggie (Mtume Gant) who immediately gets into a violent beef with Artie Jr.
When I first heard that a prequel to Carlito’s Way was coming out I expected to see the events that where the cause of his last incarceration. Instead the story goes to the middle of his life, how he rose from a convicted car thief to a major drug kingpin. There is a lot of the Goodfellas here, not just the scene describe above. Carlito is a tragic figure in the classical sense. He wants to go straight but circumstances seem to conspire against him keeping in his life of crime. Carlito is smart, not just in the street sense but there is an innate intelligence to the man. Certainly if he devoted the energies he spends on criminal enterprises to more lawful pursuits he would be a successful man. Earl and Rocco frequently point out to him that he has to get rid of his temper and realize he is a business man now.
Jay Hernandez does an admirable job as the younger Carlito. He is believable as the tough street wise thug and as a man capable of a tender relationship with his girlfriend. Hernandez makes this particular manifestation of Carlito his own, separate from the version depicted by Pacino. He has a commanding screen presence that was enjoyable to watch. The man may not have the talent of his predecessor in this role but then again, who does. Jaclyn DeSantis does well as the belabored girlfriend. She also displays a soft side juxtaposed with the tough New York City Latina. Her talent here compliments Hernandez perfectly. A lot of very talented actors show that ability shins though even in smaller roles. Mario Van Peebles portrays Earl as a man that rose from the streets and now sees himself as a business man, not unlike any that works in an office. It is a shame that Giancarlo Esposito is not given a more substantial role. I have always enjoyed the talents of this actor and here there was just too little to showcase him. Sean Combs, better known currently as just ‘Diddy’ is nothing less than perfect as Hollywood Nicky. If there is anyone that can play a man of wealth and power, used to his slightest wish heard as an absolute command it is Diddy. While many singers seem to demand leading roles right away Combs had the intelligence to take on smaller roles to learn to hone his acting skills.
Michael Scott Bregman took on the daunting task of continuing a story first told by a director like Brian De Palma. He displays a lot of talent in the way he paces the film and with the attention he pays to the details. He nails the look and feel of 1960’s upper Manhattan, a place I know fairly well. Bregman strike an excellent balance between the action sequences and showing the dilemma that affects the lead character. Exposition is handled in a natural, unobtrusive way that does not make the film drag at any point. I was impressed with his direction from the first scene, black and white sweeping down over the city showing the people going about their lives. The narration of Carlito nicely sets up the reset of the film.
Although originally planned for a theatrical release Universal decide to go direct to video instead. I have to agree that the home theater was a better choice, although good the film would not hold up against the bigger budget rivals. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video was excellent. There was not a hint of distortion or artifacts to mar the enjoyment of the film. The color balance was true to life and consistent. The audio was presented in both Dolby 5.1 and DTS. While both where very good the DTS did provide better backfill. Both utilized all six speakers well, the action pounding through the sub woofer to emphasize the action. There where a couple of interesting extras provide. One features a look at the trio as the build their crime empire while another details what it took to recreate the famous neighborhood of Harlem in the 1960s. There are a couple of deleted scenes added to the mix but it was easy to see why they ended up on the editor’s floor. While not as good as Carlito’s Way this film stands up as a worth while watch.