Between 1972 and 1979, Al Pacino appeared in The Godfather I, its sequel, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and …And Justice for All: a golden run, to least the least. Critical acclaim in the following decades was more sporadic, with his critics claiming a hardening of style, the method disintegrating into monotony, if not madness. Anyone keen to verify the veracity of this charge (or have evidence on hand to dispute it) should fund this box set – with Scarface and Sea of Love from the ‘80s, Scent of a Woman and Carlito’s Way from the early ’90s – a good starting point.
Sea of Love, directed by Harold Becker, is the only one in the set that never mistakes itself for a great film. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a good film though. Pacino plays a cop trying to track down a killer who favours singles ads in the newspaper. Welcome amounts of humour are derived from an unremarkable plot – especially Pacino’s interaction with his taller, fatter partner, played by John Goodman, and his needling of a cop who’s married his ex-wife. Ellen Barkin, her mouth a mischievous upward curl, plays both love interest and possible suspect, and is almost too much for Pacino to handle. The film builds to an unsatisfying ending, but the journey is fun.
There’s nothing much one can say about Scarface or Scent of a Woman that will change the way most people already feel about them. The former, directed by Brian De Palma, is hypercharged, florid, crude – a classic of excess. Based loosely on the 1932 Howard Hawks film of the same name, it stars Pacino as one Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee who works his way up the criminal ladder and ends up a swearing, cocaine-snorting king. Pacino’s Montana is almost cartoonish in his over-the-top unpredictability and lack of restraint. The performance stays with you, like a blow from a sledgehammer. The same could also be said for his turn – more nuanced, yet still very loud and difficult to like – as a blind colonel in Scent of a Woman. It’s the kind of ornery-yet-life-affirming performance the Oscars tend to notice, and duly earned Pacino his second golden statuette.
Carlito’s Way, Pacino’s second collaboration with De Palma, has a tendency to get overshadowed by the bombast of Scarface. Seen today, it is in many ways the superior of the first film. Pacino gives one of his most restrained, beautifully-judged performances as Carlito Brigante, a former drug lord who’s sprung from jail by his lawyer (Sean Penn) and wows to go straight. De Palma envisioned the film as a neo-noir, which comes through in Brigante’s voiceover and the overarching sense of fatalism. The more Carlito tries to stay out the trouble, the more it seems to seek him out. The suspense is accentuated through long, sweeping takes, culminating in a bravura sequence at a railway station. Fantastic support is extended by Luis Guzmán, John Leguizamo and Viggo Mortensen. All four DVDs are sans special features and shorn of scenes with even the slightest hint of skin (Scarface’s 226 f-bombs are left intact).