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Pennebaker and Hegedus didn’t sign on until the week of the Democratic National Convention, and the film’s first section, cobbled together from other people’s footage, is not very interesting—in part because we see more of Bill ‘n’ Hill than of James and George. Once things get moving, though, the film captures some of the adrenalin-pumping rush of high stakes and tight deadlines. By the time the choked-up Carville and awestruck Stephanopoulos arrive at election eve, the excitement is palpable.
Along the way, Carville’s outspoken candor provides an agreeable contrast to the insincerity of his candidate. He calls Perot’s campaign “the single biggest act of masturbation in history,” laughs as he improvises a mock concession speech, and crows, “I thought of that, didn’t I?” when Clinton mouths one of his tag lines. The film throws Carville’s role into high relief by presenting snippets of his icy mirror image, the thoroughly dislikable Mary Matalin. (That he’s about to marry her is a plot twist too audacious for Hollywood.) Though it’s his irreverence that’s winning, Carville actually seems sincere when he tells the final gathering of his campaign troops that “I think the governor is going to keep his promise and change America.” But then he probably thought Florio was going to win New Jersey too.
A disco cousin of Dazed and Confused, Carlito’s Way relives the mid-’70s to the strains of “(Shake Shake Shake) Shake Your Booty,” “Rock the Boat,” and “Fly, Robin, Fly.” You remember the cinematic ’70s—those days of cocaine glamour and menace, when the ethnic mobster came into his own, decorative female nudity was commonplace, and director Brian De Palma hadn’t yet squandered his reputation on dogs like Casualties of War and The Bonfire of the Vanities.
The film opens with a showy slo-mo sequence, depicting with a gliding, swiveling camera the train-platform shooting of a man yet to be introduced as Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino). This prelude is entirely in black-and-white, except for a billboard advertising “Escape to Paradise” in vivid shades oforange. Having proved he’s seen Zentropa, De Palma then reverts to familiar styles and themes: Carlito is a big-time smack dealer, freshly sprung from prison on a technicality. He’s offered opportunities to get into the now-burgeoning coke trade, but all he wants is to make enough money to buy into a car rental operation in the Bahamas (Paradise Island, of course) and to reclaim old girlfriend Gail (essentially noble man that he is, he’d blown her off because he didn’t want her to wait for him through his expected 20-year stint behind bars).
The principal complication is Carlito’s relationship with David Kleinfeld, the blond-Afro’d attorney who got him out. A pistol-packin’, cocaine-snortin’, radical-chic neo-gangster, Kleinfeld is the wildest burlesque of a flashy Jewish lawyer since Jeff Goldblum’s demented turn in Deep Cover—and he’s played with a similar goofy glee by Sean Penn. Kleinfeld gets Carlito a legit job running a disco (cue KC and the Sunshine Band), and Carlito improbably wins back Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), a ballet dancer with Broadway ambitions who’s subsisting on her wages as a topless dancer (insert the obligatory strip-club scene). But the lawyer is also in big trouble with some mobsters, and he insists that Carlito join him in a misguided plan to eliminate the threat. Carlito’s smack-dealer code of honor requires him to help Kleinfeld, which leads, more or less, back to the opening scene. In ’70s-style neo-noirs, bad things happen to bad people who try to go good, because—well, as I remember, it has something to do with Watergate.
David Koepp’s script is based on two novels (one titled Carlito’s Way) by Edwin Torres, a New York State Supreme Court justice. Torres presumably knows the sort of people he’s fictionalized in his books, but somewhere along the way the verisimilitude has yielded to De Palma’s flamboyant style. (Indeed, the film plays best as a lampoon of tough-guy buddy-picture conventions, as in the scene where Carlito and Kleinfeld ignore their dates and end up dancing together, or the one where Carlito calls a former associate “a stand-up guy” just before discovering he’s now in a wheelchair.) The film is fuzzy on non-movie-biz details: De Palma includes a shot of a marquee advertising Shaft’s Big Score but has Carlito and Gail rendezvous for a train to Miami at Grand Central Terminal, a station that has no tracks leading south from Manhattan.
From the absurdly venal Kleinfeld to the absurdly compliant Gail to the absurdly chivalrous Carlito—the latter played with an accent that suggests Pacino thinks the South Bronx is somewhere near South Carolina—these characters are as cartoonish as their tale is quaint. “Back Stabbers” remains a great song, but a lot of the mid-’70s dance music surveyed here (compiled by former Madonna escort Jellybean Benitez) is dated kitsch—and so is Carlito’s Way.
Back in the ’80s, when Frank Miller was revolutionizing the comic book, his gift was more for storytelling than story. In short, he was a director, not a scripter. Thus it’s frustrating that Miller has made his Hollywood move as a screenwriter rather than a director. Certainly Robocop 3, a rather languid action flick, could use some of his sense of motion.
Miller and director Fred Dekker are credited as co-writers of 3, which strains to reach the velocity of 2 and doesn’t touch the satirical glee of the first one. Perhaps that’s because—aside from Robert John Burke’s replacing Peter Weller as Robo—there’s little here that’s fundamentally new. Omni Consumer Products (OCP) is still trying to build Delta City, its anachronistically futuristic mini-urb, and still brutally evicting residents of a downscale Detroit neighborhood (actually filmed in Atlanta) to do it. The company’s now run by new Japanese bosses who bring a cyber-ninja or two into play, but the real villain is the British-accented OCP field commander McDaggett (Royal Shakespeare Company veteran John Castle), whose “state-of-the-art urban pacification” includes the murder of Robo’s partner Lewis (Nancy Allen, the former Mrs. De Palma). (The Japanese, as anyone who knows Miller’s comics would expect, are ruthless but more respectful of a formidable enemy like Robocop than of their sniveling American employees.)
In his own lurching way, Robo was always the gallant type, but 3 goes further in making this Iron John a prototypical sensitive man. He overrides his own programming and turns on OCP after Lewis’ murder, but that’s only possible because Dr. Lazarus (Jill Hennessy) has ignored a direct order to remove Robo’s human memories and because Nikko (Remy Ryan), a recently orphaned (by OCP thugs) 10-year-old Japanese-American master hacker, uses her laptop to delete the command that he never wrangle with an OCP officer. At a decisive moment, Robo’s memory banks review the important people in his life, and they’re all female. (The anti-OCP rebels are led by a woman, CCH Pounder’s Bertha, and even the newscaster who refuses to read anti-Robo propaganda is a woman; her pathetic male partner sits there in a cocaine stupor as she walks off the set.) In his silicon-chip mind, Robo’s wife, Lewis, Lazarus, and Nikko morph together—the Eternal Feminine attracts him higher.
Literally higher, since one of this installment’s attempts at novelty is to give Robo a jetpack, which he uses to wipe out the encroaching OCP forces in a scene that’s both anticlimactic and technically slipshod. But then that’s true of all of 3‘s action and chase sequences; inert and clumsily paced, they slow rather than hasten this sluggish flick’s progress. Dekker and Miller actually seem less interested in crash ‘n’ bash than in the occasional sociocultural satire—a gang called the Splatterpunks, TV commercial parodies—and the nontraditional-family-bonding between Robo, Lazarus, and Nikko. One can imagine them all living together in the next installment, a domestic action-comedy, Robocop 4: Robofather Knows Best.