CARLITO'S WAY. Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller and John Leguizamo. Directed by Brian De Palma. Category II. On the Panasia circuit.

THIS under-publicised film represents a powerful return to form by the erratic but always intriguing Brian De Palma. It also sees Al Pacino finally tackling a character worthy of his talents, after a series of flimsy 'comeback' roles during the early 1990s, culminating last year in his first Oscar for probably his weakest performance in Scent of a Woman.

In Carlito's Way he has made full amends but ironically, can barely expect to even get nominated for working on a De Palma gangland movie. Yet it represents the actor at his extraordinary best and marks the creation of his third fully-formed and quite unforgettable screen mobster after past adventures in the Godfather saga and Scarface.

Carlito Brigante (the very name evokes the kind of Latin strut and swagger nobody can cut quite like Pacino) is in some ways an amalgam of the preceding pair: the weary, remorseful Michael Corleone of The Godfather Part III and Tony Montana, the remorseless, cocaine-kingpin anti-hero of De Palma's controversial 1983 reworking of the Scarface legend.

As in both previous films, the era is the sartorially-challenged, coke-frosted 1970s. Like Montana, Carlito is an Hispanic hardman who made his name as a big-time drug dealer and is most at home in the tacky milieu of the Travolta-esque discotheque. And like the ageing Corleone, he wants out but keeps getting pulled back in.

Carlito is more a sum of these two parts, though. Sporting a tight black beard and at least some modicum of dress sense compared to those around him, the solemn, fiercely-dignified Carlito is of course endowed with a trademark Pacino personal idiosyncrasy:a slight speech impediment. The result is that he stresses his syllables with unnecessary severity and though sometimes intrusive, it works. But what ultimately carries the character is not the fancy acting, but an incandescent inner intensity that virtually burns out of the man's eyes.

Such undiluted movie star charisma is necessary to the portrayal of a man who even after five years in prison with most of his contemporaries dead or dead beats, remains a legend on the street. A macho man who has built up a drug empire in the New York barrios and survived. When he returns, looking only to make enough money to invest in semi-retirement in the Bahamas, everybody wants to be his best friend.

But before he has the chance to escape, he is installed as boss of a humming nightclub, and by simply being who he is (in the classic Gunfighter tradition) courts conflict with up-and-coming punks like Benny Blanco from the Bronx (a fine young Tony Montanaact from John Leguizamo) looking to make a name for themselves.

The most dangerous is the friend who got Carlito the club job in the first place ('A favour will kill you faster than any bullet', Carlito mourns in a voice-over), Sean Penn's hot-headed mob lawyer Kleinfeld.

Penn is set to be recognised as the Al Pacino of his generation; his tough guy act in State of Grace is excellent, and here he shows he can also handle a fatal weakness quite brilliantly. Although convincingly disguised as the ultimate '70s hoodlum, his genius as a character actor shines through just as strongly as Pacino's.

Carlito's Way is superior storytelling, right from its opening moments which feature one of the smartest title sequences since De Palma's The Bonfire of the Vanities, narrated with a classy soliloquy from Jurassic Park screenwriter, David Koepp.

It may not quite sit alongside his A-list contributions such as Scarface and The Untouchables, but De Palma has again come up with a gangster movie worthy of its place in the Hollywood Hall of Infamy.