Amusingly, when he’s doing voiceover narration for “Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power”, star Jay Hernandez seems to be doing his best Al Pacino impression. And there are moments in the film when Hernandez is doing Pacino as well, but they’re far and in-between, leaving you to wonder if writer/director Michael Bregman ever bothered to remind the young actor that he was, in fact, playing a younger version of the character played by Al Pacino in 1993’s “Carlito’s Way”. In any case, there’s some mild entertainment to be had watching Hernandez sometimes remember to play the character as Pacino, and other times not even bothering. You would think the studio could pay someone to stand on the set everyday to remind him, but I guess not.
“Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power” is billed as a prequel to the 1993 film with Pacino, based on the crime novel by Edwin Torres (who, in a bit of trivia, is a Judge for the New York State Supreme Court). Written and directed by Michael Scott Bregman who, according to his credits on IMDB.com, was once the “editing assistant” on Oliver Stone’s seminal ethnic gangster film “Scarface”. In “Rise to Power”, Bregman spins the tale of a young Carlito, who at the age of 21 is recently released from prison. Carlito and two fellow inmates, the black Earl (a fantastic Mario Van Peeples) and the Italian Rocco (an underused Michael Kelly) soon go into business bringing cocaine to the poor neighborhoods of New York . Mother Teresa these guys ain’t.
In-between his drug dealings, Carlito has time to hustle feisty coat check girl Leticia (Jaclyn DeSantis), while trying to convince her he’s a musician booker. Of course she doesn’t buy it, and soon she’s exposed him for the gangster he is. Not that this means he’s off her “to date” list, because soon the two are soaking in the bathtub together and Carlito is having dinner with her family. Meanwhile, Earl is having trouble with his ne’er-do-well younger brother Reggie (Mtume Gant), who claims to be a militant black man, but as Carlito correctly points out, has never had to work a day in his life thanks to big brother Earl. And looming in the background is Harlem kingpin Hollywood Nicky (rap mogul Sean Combs, in a surprisingly effective turn) and the Italian mob.
Alas, “Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power” is very routine stuff, and despite some good moments, it’s an average film through and through. The movie’s best moments don’t even have anything to do with Carlito’s gangster pals, but instead the confrontations between Carlito and Leticia’s brother. The rest of the film is stitched together of unspectacular moments, and toward its Second Act, “Rise to Power” takes a curious turn by making the Reggie character into a major player. The militant teen complicates matters so much that the Italians send for their ace hitman played by Luiz Guzman, who was actually in the original “Carlito’s Way”, though as another character. Here, Guzman is an amiable killer with an intolerable propensity for cocaine and good times.
Of the cast, the one that makes the best impression is Mario van Peeples (“Ali”), who delivers an excellent, controlled performance as gangster Earl. Peeples seems to be channeling his old man as he struts about the neighborhood in his pimp gear, looking every bit like the fly mofo you expect the coolest brother in the ’70s to look. It’s too bad there’s not nearly enough of Peeples, because Hernandez (“Friday Night Lights”), though he’s not a bad actor, is simply underwhelming in the lead. Oftentimes you are hardpressed to figure out who the film’s main star is, as Hernandez’s Carlito lacks any of the spark or magnetism that Pacino once charged the character with. Of course comparing Hernandez to Pacino is grossly unfair, but even so, it’s somewhat shocking just how muted Hernandez is in the role.
The other nitpick with “Rise to Power” is that there’s no real connection between this prequel and the Al Pacino version aside from the fact that both films use the same character. There are no references or appearances to David Kleinfeld, the troublesome lawyer played by Sean Penn in the 1993 version, or Gail, the woman Carlito was so in love with he tried to go straight for. Or if Bregman did introduce them somewhere within the film, I didn’t catch it. Of course, “Carlito’s Way” was 12 years ago, and though a good film, it’s by no means Pacino’s most memorable movie or role.
As a standalone film about some guy name Carlito, “Rise to Power” is a competent, and entertaining enough gangster film. To be sure, writer/director Bregman shows no real flourishes with the camera, and the film oftentimes gives off the feel of an HBO or Showtime original movie instead of something that might have, at one point in time, been made for theatrical release. There’s also a mild plot twist at the end that doesn’t really qualify as a plot twist, and how the film sews up its gangster problems is a bit lacking. Overall, “Rise to Power” makes for a decent diversion, especially as a straight-to-video movie, but you wouldn’t want to put it up next to the original by a long shot. Though unexceptional, it’s by no means bad.
Michael Scott Bregman (director) / Michael Scott Bregman (screenplay)
CAST: Jay Hernandez …. Carlito Brigante
Sean Combs …. Hollywood Nicky
Luis Guzman …. Nacho Reyes
Jaclyn DeSantis …. Leticia
Mtume Gant …. Reggie
Michael Kelly …. Rocco
Mario Van Peebles …. Earl