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Carlito's Way: Rise to Power (September 26/05)

It's probably best if one approaches Carlito's Way: Rise to Power as a stand-alone film, rather than as a prequel to Brian DePalma's 1993 adaptation of Edwin Torres' acclaimed crime novel. This isn't to say the film is bad - it's actually surprisingly good, particularly when you consider its straight-to-video status - but there's also no denying that director Michael Bregman doesn't possess even a fraction of DePalma's ability (ie though the two have worked together in the past, it's clear that DePalma's wildly creative sense of style didn't rub off on Bregman).

The story opens with Carlito Brigante's (Jay Hernandez) release from jail shortly after his 21st birthday, followed by his efforts to establish a drug-supplying business with two prison buddies (Mario Van Peebles and Michael Kelly). Carlito and his new partners encounter plenty of opposition from various sources - including a slick criminal named Hollywood Nicky (Sean Combs) and a pair of corrupt cops (Giancarlo Esposito and Tony Cucci). Meanwhile, Carlito is pursuing a relationship with a street smart coat-check girl (Jaclyn DeSantis) - despite some serious opposition from her brother.

Carlito's Way: Rise to Power plays out like a cross between Goodfellas and Blow, as the film follows Carlito and his crew's attempts to bring cocaine to some of New York's poorer neighborhoods - while also avoiding several sinister underworld figures. And though this is the sort of story we've seen many, many times before, Bregman (who also wrote the film's screenplay) effectively holds the viewer's interest by populating the proceedings with a variety of intriguing, quirky supporting characters.

In that respect, Combs is the real surprise here - as the rapper-turned-actor steps into the shoes of a charismatic murderer with apparent ease. With appearances in films like Made and Monster's Ball, Combs is slowly establishing himself as a genuinely talented performer and not just a singer looking for something to do in the off-season (ie Madonna). Hernandez, on the other hand, doesn't fare quite as well - imbuing Carlito with a sort of bland vibe that's just about the polar opposite of what Pacino did with the character (in all fairness, most actors would be hard-pressed to successfully follow someone as magnetic as Pacino). As a result, Carlito never quite becomes a figure that we're entirely rooting for (at least, not to the extent that we were in DePalma's version).

But hands down, it's Luis Guzman's scene-stealing appearance as a cocaine-sniffing hitman that ultimately proves to be the most entertaining aspect of Carlito's Way: Rise to Power. The film's second act is awfully talky - the emphasis is placed on Carlito's relationship with the volatile brother of Van Peebles' character - and as a result, Guzman's arrival injects the film with a much-needed jolt of energy. And while his performance is clearly the best thing about the movie, it comes as something of a relief to discover that Carlito's Way: Rise to Power is actually a legitimate piece of work (and not just a sleazy attempt to milk the popularity of the original).

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About the DVD: Universal Studios Home Entertainment presents Carlito's Way: Rise to Power with a crisp letterboxed transfer, along with deleted scenes, a pair of featurettes, bonus trailers, and more.
© David Nusair