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Thursday, Oct. 20, 2005 11:31 pm

Pacino, the sometime mentor

Why's he a role model? He keeps taking risks.

Al Pacino is a role model for any actor, and he occasionally finds himself in the mentor role in his characters. Two for the Money has ignited criticism that he plays that role too often. Wouldn’t you want to learn from someone who does it so well? Movies such as Donnie Brasco and The Recruit come to mind, but they are representative of only a small part of his career. Pacino’s career started off with a bang in a dream role that defines the actor more than anything he will ever do. After only one starring role, in the little-seen drug film The Panic in Needle Park (1971), he jumped to the pivotal role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972), and he continue to portray the character in the two sequels. If he never appeared in another film, those three are enough to give him a special place in cinema history. Of course, he’s done a lot more, and the first half of the 1970s was quite productive. He reunited with his Needle Park director Jerry Schatzberg for the forgotten gem Scarecrow (1973), and he starred twice for Sidney Lumet, in Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975). The 1980s saw a severe downturn, beginning with the notorious William Friedkin thriller Cruising (1980). Audiences were not quite ready for this disturbing, twisted, and confounding tale of the serial killing of homosexuals in the sadomasochistic subculture of the gay community. Pacino is uncharacteristically subdued as an undercover cop whose activities force him to confront aspects of his personality that lay dormant. Cruising is a brilliant film that has not lost its power to shock. Scarface (1983) has developed such a rabid cult following that people forget that it failed in its theatrical release. Pacino’s hammy performance as a Cuban drug dealer is perfectly in sync with Brian De Palma’s outlandish direction. Everything is deliberately over the top, and many film buffs now consider Scarface Pacino’s definitive role. Don’t believe that one. Pacino had a field day with one of his greatest roles, in People I Know (2002), and most of his fans missed it. He stars as a down-and-out New York press agent who seems to have lost his touch. We don’t often see Pacino playing a character who is not in control, but, here, casting against type works perfectly. Perhaps the complainers haven’t seen the diversity of his roles. Pacino is taking another risk by starring in the upcoming remake of the French heist classic Rififi.
New releases on DVD on Tuesday (Oct. 25): Bewitched, Melinda and Melinda, Last Days, and House of Wax.
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