In Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way, the protagonist is a famous Spanish Harlem drug dealer whose lawyer gets him released from prison on a technicality. After serving only five years of a 30-year sentence, Carlito really wants to go straight. He no longer has the stomach for all the stress and the killing. Old associates try to stifle their laughter and disbelief when he tells them of his dream to establish a car rental business in the Bahamas. All he needs for this ticket to paradise is $75,000.
Carlito takes over the operation of a mobster hangout in East Harlem and begins saving his money. He reconnects with his old flame, a one-time chorus girl who now dances in a topless go-go club. Despite his intention to turn his life around, trouble dogs Carlito. A relative nearly gets him killed in a drug shootout and Kleinfeld, his Ivy League lawyer who's addicted to cocaine, draws him into a scheme that puts him in a vise between the law and the mob.
In his first performance since his Academy Award-winning role in Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino is convincing as a world-weary middle-ager who wants to lay his burdens down. As he tells his girlfriend, "I'm a sprinter who's lost his wind." Also impressive is Sean Penn as Carlito's amoral lawyer. The screenplay by David Koepp is based on two books by New York judge Edwin Torres. It reveals how Carlito's code of honor has little meaning on the mean streets where there are no rules at all except kill or be killed. The treatment of this sober subject raises Carlito's Way a cut above other recent gangster flicks.