Just When They Thought I Was Out: The Brilliance of ‘90s Al Pacino

Movies Features Al Pacino
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Just When They Thought I Was Out: The Brilliance of ‘90s Al Pacino

Life is always good if you’re Al Pacino, but in the early ‘90s, it was particularly sweet. While the ‘80s had offered a few controversial winners, it was nothing compared to his powerhouse ‘70s run, potentially one of the best decades any actor has celebrated. But by the end of ‘92, he had enjoyed a return to everything that made him Al; he reprised Michael Corleone, reuniting with Scarface co-star Michelle Pffeiffer, made some glorious shouty speeches in Glengarry Glen Ross, all capped off with a long overdue Oscar in March 1993. He could have tapped out. But, as we know from hindsight, he was just getting started.

It’s wild how few ‘80s Pacino films made a lasting cultural impact. Out of the five he completed (BFI broke Pacino’s challenging decade down), the ones best remembered after years of critique and reassessment are the ones where he joined forces with iconic Hollywood New Wave artists, just as the Wave itself was ebbing away: William Friedkin’s Cruising and Brian De Palma’s Scarface. After his powerhouse couple years in the final decade of the 20th century, it’s understandable why Pacino wanted to make sure his ‘90s left his ‘80s in the dust. Little breadcrumbs litter the ‘80s, the cocaine-fueled bellowing of Tony Montana or his sick moves on the dance floor in Cruising, that point us towards the eventual memeification of Al that we’d see in the ‘90s, itself a small stepping stone in a journey to whatever the hell stage of post-irony this is supposed to be:

Just like the fate suffering Nicolas Cage, the erratic flairs that set him apart as a dramatic actor would soon be all audiences craved—as soon as Al let out that first HOOAH, he had effectively signed his own death warrant. On the 25th anniversary of his more unhinged courtroom drama, The Devil’s Advocate, it’s time to revisit the actor’s turbocharged hot streak that spit in the face of “late-era” snobbery.

Made with the reflexive panache that would make most modern directors weep, De Palma’s second collaboration with Pacino proved to be a much more muted affair than their first. Carlito’s Way sees a reformed Puerto Rican gangster trying to keep things clean upon his release from prison, but his attempts to own a garish nightclub that’s an assault on the senses of sight and sound inevitably gets tied up with the nefarious deeds he wanted to avoid. Poor guy! There’s not much hope for him throughout the two-and-a-half-hour runtime, seeing as the opening shots show his dead body being carried away. It’s great seeing Pacino, the same year he won his Oscar, slum around as a noble ex-con building his life up from nothing.

In terms of delirious performances, Pacino actually struggles to let his Hooah-ness shine, thanks to the dominating lifeforce that is Sean Penn as Carlito’s insecure, belligerent, coke-fiend best friend. When Pacino isn’t trying to calm down Penn’s sweaty turn, he has to fend off a scenery-chewing Viggo Mortensen (wired and wheelchair-riding in his one scene) and a luminescent John Leguizamo as the flashy wannabe bigtimer Benny Blanco (from the Bronx). And, like all good movies, Luis Guzmán is in the background somewhere. It’s understandable how straight Pacino plays it; even in a De Palma movie, there’s a limit on how many insane performances you can have before a movie bursts at the seams. And while Pacino hadn’t yet leaned fully into the shouty, eye-bulging indulgences that the ‘90s would represent for him, he did get to lead a classic dialogue-free De Palma suspense sequence, evading sinister characters across a big railway station. Little victories.

In terms of how wild a performance can get inside a normal, straight-laced film, Heat has to be the prime example. It’s a faultless cat-and-mouse thriller filled with bombastic action scenes and deliciously wounded tough guys, photographed in crisp neon hues. And, as police lieutenant Hanna, Al Pacino loses his nut in it, multiple times, to comedic effect. It’s unclear if L.A. police interrogation technique encourages screaming in a suspect’s face about big asses, or if Hanna actually got that TV in the divorce, but whether his behavior was morally justified or not is irrelevant—what matters is how fun it is, how his eruptions represent the pockets of violence peppered throughout Heat’s simmering tension. Apparently, cocaine was the reason for this; Pacino admitted this was how he played Hanna, citing an early draft that spelled it out more plainly. Note: Coke is the recurring culprit for Pacino acting weird in movies.

The Devil’s Advocate, 25 this month, is the exception to this batch of films, being the only one that’s actually no good and hot shit. At a laborious 144 minutes, it’s the same length as Carlito’s Way, but the cost on your soul is staggeringly more. But however uncompelling the film is, Al Pacino’s turn as Lucifer himself is anything but, with apparently zero notes from director Taylor Hackford about how loose or restrained he should be. He begins the film in an unassuming but still bafflingly baggy suit, uncomfortably traipsing around Keanu Reeves like he’s trying to play off a major acid high. Steadily, courageously, he lets the crazy seep in.

He confronts a knife-wielding Latino man on the subway (spouting all the Spanish-speaking dialogue the Pacino-heads go crazy for) with wild eyes, bellows segments of his dialogue seemingly at random, touches a lot of people inappropriately and systematically implies he wants to fuck 80% of the principal cast. There’s also hissing. And weird tongue stuff. And he talks about fucking for the vast majority of his screentime. Sorry if this section seems a little unstructured; when it comes to Devil’s Advocate, there’s no articulate way to convey the enormity of what Pacino gets up to. There’s a difference between a sober actor playing a coked-up character, a coked-up actor playing a sober character and the merging of an actor and character to form a symbolic representation of cocaine itself.

Debauchery is one thing, but this is the Pacino character that feels the most filthy. It’s probably why, among the football coaches and low-life criminals, Pacino decided to restrain himself for more classy, prestigious fare in his last ‘90s film: Michael Mann’s The Insider. Playing 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, Pacino’s madness is still there, but in a different context; Lowell is a regular, real-life human, a reporter who is pushed to the extremes of what disruptive bullshit one man will tolerate before he snaps. Don’t be fooled: His snapping is glorious, screaming out the late and great Christopher Plummer and Philip Baker Hall on their lack of journalistic integrity. Whistleblowing reports inspire a lot of conflict, and need a certain type of intense personality to navigate the cease-and-desists, make the suits back down and strengthen any shaky witnesses. Maybe that’s where Pacino’s strength lies in the film; in the quieter moments, there’s always the overhanging notion that he could erupt, and would hesitate not a bit to unleash his fury on you.

When you reach a point in your career when you can do whatever you want, many take the easy road out. Some even take the easier road out: Do a wine sponsorship and retire. But Pacino’s ‘90s career is indicative of a man who was unhappy going down without a fight, and demonstrated year after year that you can go crazy and still give a compelling performance—that you could go for broke and not run out of steam. Does the silliness of his ‘90s lessen the worth of his peerless ‘70s films, where his work was countercultural, abrasive and ushered in a generation who acted in ways general audiences were not used to? It’s possible, but it’s unfair to expect performers to meet a benchmark they made by being groundbreaking. But a broader context is key; Pacino’s ‘90s may not match his ‘70s, but compared to the ‘80s, it’s a gold rush of intensity, sincerity and—yes—silliness. Pacino spent his ‘90s riffing on his ‘70s, leaning into what everyone remembered him for, but never taking the easy way out, phoning it in with a cheap impression of himself. It was not a retread, but an evolution. HOOAH.


Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.