Carlito’s Way (1993)
”You a gangster now. You can't learn it at school... you can't have a late start.”
By the early '90s, the initial controversy surrounding Brian De Palma' violent remake of Scarface had evaporated and the film had become something of a high-profile cult classic. A re-teaming of the film's director and star Al Pacino, Carlito's Way was marketed as its followup -- and it is, though not necessarily in the way most would expect. While Scarface starred Pacino as a character whose all-encompassing appetite leads him to climb higher and higher in the underworld, in Carlito's Way he plays a world-weary character seeking only to get out. In place of the drug-fueled mania of Tony Montana, Pacino uses silence and knowing looks to convey a miles-deep sadness. It's a masterful performance in a film that has much to recommend it, in particular a handful of deftly-executed set pieces, a tremendous feel for its disco-era setting, and a terrific supporting cast (Luis Guzman, John Leguizamo, and especially Sean Penn). But ultimately it's the elegiac mood of the film that stays longest in the memory, as De Palma and company escalate B-movie material into a meditation on aging and fate. Severely underrated at the time, this is a film that just looks better as the years go by. (In fact, Cahiers Du Cinema would later pronounce it the best of the decade.)
Reservoir Dogs (1992 )
”Torture you? That's a good idea. I like that.”
A study in violence and pop hoodlum cool, Quentin Tarantino's debut film adrenalized the gangster film and put Tarantino on the auteur map. Adapting the novelistic structure of Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and using observational long takes, Tarantino shifts between the preparations for an ill-fated heist and its extraordinarily bloody aftermath, increasing tension through the gradual revelation of each color-coded character's true nature as they figure out what went wrong. As in Howard Hawks's and Sam Peckinpah's films, the driving concern is honor among men, but, as in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Tarantino's crooks also define themselves through a plethora of pop culture references, from Lee Marvin to the "Stuck in the Middle With You" ear-slicing and the opening exegesis of Madonna songs. Drawing praise and fire on the film festival circuit for juxtaposing humor and brutal violence, and attacked for being too indebted to the Hong Kong action film City on Fire (1987), Reservoir Dogs opened to critical acclaim, jump-starting former video clerk Tarantino's career. Although its extreme bloodshed hampered its box office, Reservoir Dogs's postmodern generic self-awareness went on to be almost as influential on 1990s gangster movies as Tarantino's next film, Pulp Fiction (1994).