Any attempt to make a prequel to Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way—especially a low-budget, direct-to-video follow-up—would be fraught with dangers. And for its disastrous first half-hour, Carlito's Way: Rise To Power seems to fall victim to every single one. For starters, much of the original's emotional resonance came as its career-criminal protagonist struggled to re-establish himself in a life filled with experiences that don't belong on a résumé. A rise-to-power prequel inherently lacks this melancholy dimension, but initially, that seems like the least of the film's problems.
Based, like the first film, on an Edwin Torres novel, Carlito's Way: Rise To Power opens with protagonist Jay Hernandez delivering some particularly ripe narration that aspires to slangy vibrancy, but instead comes off more like beat poetry read by a second-rate impersonator of Al Pacino, the man who originated the Carlito role. For the next 15 minutes, the clumsy, exposition-heavy narration seldom ceases, which is problematic on multiple levels. It violates the old dictum to show rather than tell, and it ensures that Hernandez's voice dominates the film before he has a chance to make that voice his own, rather than just a pale copy of Pacino's. Moreover, Michael Bregman's flat, static direction invites nostalgia for De Palma's fluid mastery, and the attempt to convey the film's '60s setting by having a zonked-out hippie announce, "We hitched down from Woodstock for the war demonstration" is downright embarrassing. (At least that statement isn't completed by "…where we smoked some marijuana that we rolled up like a cigarette.")
Thankfully, Hernandez's performance and the film both find their footing as Hernandez and multi-racial partners Mario Van Peebles and Michael Kelly navigate the tricky racial politics of a New York underworld where the wrong comment can set off explosive ethnic warfare. Carlito's Way functioned as an inverse of De Palma and Pacino's Scarface, transforming the gangster epic from a frenetic comic book to a moody character study, and accordingly, its prequel is at its best during its quiet moments, though Luis Guzmán steals scenes as a scenery-chewing, coke-addled hitman. Still, even after recovering from a leaden opening act, Rise To Power is at best reasonably engaging. But unlike its haunting predecessor, it's nothing more.