OK, here's how "direct-to-video" (DTV) sequels get made: There's an existing film that's made a lot of money over the years, but very few (if any) of the original participants are able (or willing) to come back for a follow-up. So whoever owns the property (in this case Universal Pictures and producer Martin Bregman) starts thinking about how to do an 'in-name-only' sequel / prequel / midquel (don't laugh; Disney execs send their kids to private school on midquel money) on a much lower budget. Knowing full well that they're making a lesser product, the producers work exclusively for the home video market, although sometimes the flicks make it onto Showtime or the Sci-Fi Network before they hit the video shelves.
Carlito's Way: Rise to Power is only the most recent example of this kind of filmmaking -- although the DVD contains a trailer for something called American Pie Presents: Band Camp. (Pre-order now!) Not returning from the original (and seriously excellent) Carlito's Way are director Brian De Palma, screenwriter David Koepp, Al Pacino, Sean Penn, and Penelope Ann Miller. In their place we have writer/director Michael Scott Bregman (yes relation) and stars Jay Hernandez, Puff Diddy Daddy, and Luis Guzman, an actor who appeared in the original Carlito's Way, but here plays an entirely different character. Keep up.
Both films are based on novels by Judge Edwin Torres, and here's the roundabout story on that: The original Carlito's Way was based on two of Torres' books, "Carlito's Way" and "After Hours." The first book dealt with the Puerto Rican drug dealer's early life on the streets, while the second book detailed what went on after the guy got out of prison. So, logically, the original Carlito's Way should have been called After Hours -- but there (and still is) a Martin Scorsese film with that name, so the producers went with Carlito's Way for their title.
So now that we're delving back into the past of Mr. Carlito Brigante, and we can't exactly use the title "Carlito's Way," we get a movie called Carlito's Way: Rise to Power, which frankly ... is an awful title. But without the "Carlito" and the "Way," the DVD renters would have no idea that the flicks are related. But, basically, they're not.
Successful veteran producer Martin Bregman was, apparently, so excited to get another "Carlito" movie on the market that he handed the project over to his son Michael. The younger Bregman, for his part, once wrote and directed an obscure comedy called Table One, and has basically spent his career co-producing his dad's projects. Of the 13 films that Michael Scott Bregman has produced over the last 17 years, every single one has had his father's name on it.
Nepotism being nothing new under the sun, I realize that I'm not delivering any sort of scandalous news here, and if Marty wanted to bring his son into the family business, well, that's certainly none of my freakin' business. But here's the rub:
Having a powerful producer papa does not automatically make you a good filmmaker, and Carlito's Way: Rise to Power illustrates that opinion in sparkling clarity. This is one listless, lifeless, tiresome, and entirely predictable "street crime" potboiler. Any relation to the original Carlito's Way is tenuous, at best, and this gratingly boring movie is a clear indication that filmmaking is a craft learned, and not a legacy passed down.
Borrowing a plot structure from virtually any crime series found on CBS or NBC, Rise to Power deals with a bunch of ever-bickering criminals in 1960's Harlem. Some of 'em are black guys, some are Italians, and the rest are Hispanic. They scream at each other, they threaten each other, betrayals happen over and over, and there are numerous moments in which this guy sticks a gun in that guy's face before his pals cool him down by saying stuff like "He's not worth it," and "If you kill him then someone else will stick a gun in your face tomorrow night and we might not be there to offer this redundant counsel, so chill out."
Oh, and Burt Young shows up as a tubby Italian stereotype who spits his words out through a shower of linguine. Brilliant stuff.
If there's one shining highlight here, it'd have to be Jay Hernandez's quietly commanding performance as the young Carlito Brigante. The guy's a darn good actor -- mired in a cheapie DTV prequel that, honestly, doesn't deserve this kind of effort. And why a guy like Mario Van Peebles, who's long since proven himself a quality filmmaker, needs to play sidekick duty in a lame DTV flick, is beyond me. Even more mystifying are the purported acting skills of Sean Puff Dog Daddy Combs, or whatever it is he's calling himself this month. (Hey man, change your name every 5 weeks and people will start to poke fun. Deal with it.) A man like Puff doesn't exactly take these mini-movie gigs for the paycheck, which means that he actually fancies himself some sort of a serious actor. Forgive me for politely disagreeing with those assertions by saying "snicker."
To be fair, there is a solid handful of worthwhile performances to be found here. In addition to Hernandez's smoothly understated performance and the always-colorful presence of Mr. Van Peebles, there's also some excellent supporting work from Michael Kelly, as Carlito's partner in crime, Jacyln De Santis, as our "hero's" potential love interest, and Mtume Gant, as a angry young punk who has a gift for pissing everyone off. Plus it's a crime flick, which means that Giancarlo Esposito is bound to make an entertaining appearance or two, and so he does.
Putting aside that the movie is endlessly pedestrian and formulaic in every way and swollen with just about every "street gangster" standard ever convceived -- what's truly annoying is that the fans of the original film (and there are many) will be happily willing to give this prequel a shot, because they figure it'll have a lot of familiar characters or references to what occurs later in Carlito's Way. Wrong. You were hungry for the back-story to Viggo Mortensen's wheelchair-bound Lalin? Hoping for some early-career escapades from grungy attorney David Kleinfeld? Wondering how Carlito met up with the lovely lass later played by Penelope Ann Miller?
Sorry, fans. None of that stuff is offered here, which only helps to solidify the feeling that Carlito's Way: Rise to Power has nothing at all to do with De Palma's film. Aside from the main character's name, there's simply no connection to what Martin Bregman refers to as one of his favorite projects. Well, Mr. Bregman, if you love and adore the original Carlito's Way so much, perhaps you could have done better than slapping together a low-budget yawner and giving the project to your son as a birthday present.
Video: It's a visually strong anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer. If the movie looks drab, flat, and generally blah, that's because it was directed by a producer.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1, English only. No complaints on the aural end of the equation, unless we're talking about the actual dialogue. Optional subtitles are available in English, Spanish, and French.
Extras: A pair of middling featurettes, Got Your Back: Carlito's Brothers in Crime (5:36) and Bringing the Hood to Life (7:54), offer interview segments with several cast & crew members, as well as thoughts on the casting process, the production design, etc. A third featurette, Making-Of Documentary (11:50), is precisely as generic as you'd expect from such a creative moniker. It's 40% vague interview pieces and 60% clips of the movie you just watched.
Also included are: a 7-minute block of deleted scenes, a 6-minute gag reel, another six minutes on the set with Mario Van Peebles called Set Tour With "Earl" and the original
Perhaps originally intended for a theatrical release, but don't let that claim fool you. Had Carlito's Way: Rise to Power visited your local multiplex, it would have vanished quicker than 45 bucks at the concession stand. Aside from a few strong performances and some solid period design, Rise to Power is a round, silver sleeping pill.