DURING much of his career, director Brian De Palma has shuttled between two kinds of moviemaking.
Pictures like ``The Fury'' and ``Raising Cain'' are exercises in cinema for its own sake, telling fantastic and often violent stories with as many touches of flamboyant filmmaking as the screen will hold. Pictures like ``Scarface'' and ``The Untouchables'' are just as violent, but concentrate more on themes and characters.
De Palma's new movie, ``Carlito's Way,'' falls into the second group. It has plenty of cinematic flourishes - unexpected angles, startling cuts, and moments when the camera is turned upside down. But it tells a fairly conventional story, and focuses more on Al Pacino's acting skills than on De Palma's directorial daring.
The result should please a wider audience than more eccentric movies like the recent ``Raising Cain,'' although it may prove too ponderous and long (at 141 minutes) for blockbuster success.
The story begins with the main character, a streetwise Puerto Rican named Carlito, being viciously stabbed in a New York train station by some faceless enemy. The rest of the movie is an extended flashback telling us how Carlito came to this sorry situation.
Along the way we meet his friends, from a would-be ballerina to a shady attorney, and his enemies, from a brash young rival to the vengeful son of a murder victim. We also see much of the mayhem that has peppered Carlito's career - shown with unsettling gusto, but restricted to fewer scenes than in some of De Palma's more gruesome pictures.
What's interesting about David Koepp's screenplay for ``Carlito's Way'' is that it revolves around a bad guy who wants nothing more than to go straight and start a new life. The upheavals in the story come less from Carlito's mercurial nature than from the influence of the urban jungle around him, which seems determined to drag him back into the underworld for good.
In this respect, ``Carlito's Way'' resembles earlier films as different as Otto Preminger's classic ``The Man With the Golden Arm'' and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic ``Berlin Alexanderplatz,'' which also show how hard it is for a one-time criminal to carve out an honest life with nothing but good intentions to rely on.
De Palma explores this subject thoughtfully, if not very originally, with solid help from Pacino's earnest performance. Sean Penn is less effective as the corrupt lawyer of the tale, partly because he seems to find his character more amusing than convincing.
* ``Carlito's Way'' has an * rating. It contains a good deal of graphic violence and nudity, as well as much vulgar language.