November 15, 1993 12:00 PM

Al Pacino, Penelope Ann Miller, Sean Penn, John Leguizamo

As gangster movies go, which is basically in the direction of treating maggots as if they were lions, this is a great film—visually spectacular, fast, semi-poignant and filled with brilliant acting. Like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, however, director Brian DePalma is amazingly credulous in accepting the myth of honor among thieves, as if organized criminals never cheat, inform on or brutally murder each other.

Pacino, in his third (and at least second too many) big gangster role, is a New York City Puerto Rican drug dealer who has just been freed after serving only five years of a 30-year drug sentence, thanks to a successful appeal mounted by his lawyer, Penn.

Pacino is determined to go straight, settle down with old flame Miller and move to the Bahamas to run a ear-rental agency. But he is honor-bound, to pay Penn back for springing him, and gels involved in a caper Penn is running against Italian mobsters.

As visually eloquent as DePalma is, showing vivid slices of Pacino’s life in East Harlem, where he runs a disco to make legit money, writer David Koepp is verbally barren, producing a script that is an F-word festival; Leguizamo, as a young crook, even has one scene where he has to use the words “mis-(blank)ing-communication” and “mis-(blank)ing-understanding.”

Pacino is still in strident, bark-and-bellow Scent of a Woman mode, throwing nuance to the winds. He never makes his character even remotely sympathetic as he tries to win over the hesitant Miller, another of those fair, smart, gorgeous Waspy women who end up with movie mobsters (see Diane Keaton in The Godfather and Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface).

That’s true even though Miller, more overtly sensuous than she usually is without sacrificing any intelligence or grace, makes her devotion to Pacino almost credible—and makes the movie almost touching at times. Meanwhile Penn, so restrained he seems self-effacing by his standards, uses twitches and grins to convey the conflict of his character, a yuppie who envies and covets his gangster clients’ opulent lifestyles even as he patronizes and scorns the clients themselves.

As usual, though, DePalma is as big a star as any of his actors, lapsing into black-and-white at one point and changing camera angle unaccountably. This is not to be confused with being in control. DePalma’s Spanish-speaking characters switch capriciously from Spanish (with subtitles) to English, sometimes in midsentence. And one of his gimmicks—running a flash-forward under the opening credits—ends up tipping off the ending, which comes after a scintillating chase. By contrast with the earlier DePalma-Pacino gangster collaboration, the wildly romanticized, risibly violent Scarface, this is a plausible contemporary drama. But that is to damn it with very faint praise. (R)

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