Sean Penn and Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way.
Louis Goldman—Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

There are a million stories about criminals sprung from jail who vow to go straight. And then there’s Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way. Al Pacino—swaggering, streetwise, lovesick—gives one of his strongest, most fine-grained performances as convicted drug felon Carlito Brigante, whose crooked lawyer (played, fabulously, by Sean Penn in a perfect approximation of a ’70s man perm) somehow gets him freed after just five years of a 30-year sentence. Carlito’s post-prison dream is to buy into a car-rental joint in the Bahamas—all the better if he can persuade the love of his life, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), to join him, though he broke her heart before going up the river. Few movies give you pretty much everything—exhilarating action and diamond-hard violence, doomed romance, bitterly funny dialogue—in such a compact package. But there’s something else: movie craftsmanship can be deeply pleasurable, but not by itself. In adapting a duo of novels by Edwin Torres (the script is by master screenwriter David Koepp), de Palma works in a style both economical and luxurious. There’s not a single superfluous shot; you’re entreated not just to look, but to see. The visual logic of a sequence involving a poolroom shootout is so gorgeously precise, it’s like a calculus equation written as a sonnet. Carlito’s Way is De Palma’s warmest film, so meticulous, so lyrical, so operatic in scope and pitch that it leaves you feeling both wrecked and deeply satisfied. It’s perfection that breathes.

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