Sunday, November 6, 2011

Classic Throwback: Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983)

Since it’s release in 1983 Brian De Palma’s gangster epic, Scarface, has become a genre classic, Al Pacino’s Tony Montana has become a cultural icon and the film has been influential, and is often quoted, referenced and parodied. It is actually a reworking of Howard Hawks’ 1932 film of the same name. I haven’t seen this version, but I believe the broad rise and fall story is quite similar, as are the central themes, though most certainly not to the gratuitous excess of De Palma’s version.

Oliver Stone (a few years before his Oscar winning work for Platoon) wrote the screenplay. It is very evidently a Stone screenplay – full of ripe language, strong violence, and copious amounts of drug use (including the infamous cocaine inhalation sequence) and a not so subtle ‘fuck you’ to the Hollywood censors and the American government, who seem to be blamed for the drug wars during this period by allowing Cuban refugees (who all seem to be depicted as criminals or psychotics – and caused a stir) to enter the country. De Palma, who was fresh off his own battle with the censors following Dressed to Kill, was the perfect man to add his style to this grimy tale of greed, materialism and misguided pleasure.

Tony Montana and his friend Manny Ribera (Steven Bauer) arrive in Miami as part of the Mariel exodus in 1980, which involved the arrival of 125, 000 Cuban refugees over several months. It is believed that at least 25,000 of these refugees had criminal records or were former mental patients. Montana is interrogated on arrival, and it is clear that this opportunistic low-life is bound for trouble, despite his swagger, his inability to be intimidated and a hardened armour of self-confidence. Following he and Manny’s assassination of a political refugee and the successful (but near fatal – Tony has a close meeting with a chainsaw) completion of a drug deal, which proves that Montana has the balls to make it in the business, he is invited into the cartel of Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), Miami’s chief drug kingpin.

He soon starts undermining Lopez’ authority, forming an alliance with a Bolivian drug lord, and trying to win over Lopez’ girlfriend Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). Soon enough, Montana gets too big for his boots, and following an attempt on his life (ordered by Lopez) Montana eliminates his enemies (including a police chief, that has no repercussions) and becomes the new centre of drug distribution in Miami. But his uncouth attitude, his thirst for absolute power, his brutal ruthlessness, and his thrive off excess results in his tragic, but not sympathetic demise. “I work hard for this” he exclaims. For what? For more money than he knows what to do with and a life that leads to a premature loss of ‘everything’?

Tony Montana is certainly one of Al Pacino’s most famous roles, and his thick mush-mouth Cuban accent, his unrelenting air-of-self-importance swagger, his leering gaze, his volatile fits of anger and his general deranged attitude is initially marvelous work. Watching him grow frustrated by his dishwasher job (“I didn’t come to America to break my back”) and quickly assert himself as an honest, street-smart, no-nonsense criminal is entertaining and edgy. It soon becomes tiring, because his character is so damn unlikeable and Pacino adopts a no-holds-barred attitude. He becomes an all-round toxic presence punctuated by a series of slurred insults and frustrated narcissistic rants. Steven Bauer, who is initially more interested in American chicks than becoming a big deal, is great as Montana’s more moralistic main man but Michelle Pfeiffer just looks bored, strutting around in skimpy dresses and snorting copious amounts of coke.

Scarface is given a slick, stylish look by De Palma’s visuals, and the action is accompanied perfectly by Giorgio Moroder’s synthesizer score, and punctuated by 80’s pop songs (Push it to the limit couldn’t be more perfect). But the film is the epitome of excess, both in the materialistic pleasures of the characters, and the filmmaking. Montana’s mansion, which actually influenced the mansion of one of the characters in Grand Theft Auto Vice City (always my favourite of the GTA games), is riddled with useless and expensive décor. The double staircase leading up to Tony’s office, the extensive surveillance equipment positioned behind his desk and the huge pile of cocaine he sticks his face in at one time, are obvious examples.

The main problem I had with the film is the fact that my invested interest in the story greatly waned following the half way mark. As soon as Montana experiences his first taste of wealth, and sees a window to take what he has proven to the next level, he becomes increasingly unlikeable. The film becomes repetitive, takes disengaging tangents (the whole story with his sister could have been cut) and it is ultimately tedious and irritating. Having now seen this film twice, I have been disappointed both times. I was actually pretty optimistic for a while there, because the infamous chainsaw sequence holds up pretty well, but I can honestly confess I don’t much care for it.


  1. This is one of those films that I just love to watch. It was just on today on HD but I was watching something else at the time. Man, I can quote that film for ages.

    "Junior partner! You should listen to your wife more man, you are an asshole".

    "Hey come on back, come on, HEY! WHO PUT DIS THING TOGETHER! ME, THAT WHO!!!"

    "I keel a communist for fun but for a green card. I'm gonna carve heem up reeealll nice!"

  2. I saw it for the first time recently and *really* didn't like it (I am currently nil for five with De Palma and his films). The main difference between this and the 1932 original is that the latter is half as long; in other words, Tony Camonte in the original has risen and fallen in the time it takes Tony Montana to reach the top. There is much to be said for the comparative economy of classic Hollywood storytelling.

  3. Wow! Same movie, same day. Weird but I have to say I didn't love this but I did enjoy myself. Good review my man Andy.

  4. I have to agree with you almost 100%. I saw it a couple of months ago and I felt the same: about the excess in both acting and filmaking, the tiring aspect in the second part, the unlikeability factor of Pacino (his performance was great, but by the end it seemed forced). I can see the appeal it has on guys (my high school guy friends were in love with it), but for me it didn't work that well.Great review!

  5. I didn't think it was perfect, but I did really love it. Pacino is unforgettable and De Palma is on top form following his best film BLOW OUT.

  6. Yea I'm with you Andrew. It's one of those films I don't really get the hype for. Pacino gives one of these "look at me, I'm yelling and having antics" performance that's worth seeing but overall, it's an overrated flick to me that's nowhere in the same discussion with Goodfellas, The Godfather etc...

  7. @ Steven - I agree it is very quotable - and I understand why people like it. I can't watch this film for fun. The best scenes don't entertain me enough to put them on, and the film as a whole is an ordeal. If the first half was on TV again once I might tune in for a bit, but nothing in the second half (with the exception of the climactic shootout) draws me back.

    @ James - It is way too long. Not only is Tony's character wallowing in excess, but so are the filmmakers. I have now come to appreciate films that keep things simple, but work in complexity at the same time. This is a simple story - but so bloated that it actually makes the experience irritating.

    @ Dan - That's crazy man. I'll check out your review too.

    @ Aziza - Pacino's performance is impressive, but it becomes too "me me me". Him wallowing in the bath is a disgusting sight. What an animal. I get the popularity (especially amongst guys who want the fast car, fancy clothes, hot wife and big house) but it's really not that entertaining.

    @ Tyler - I still haven't seen Blow Out. Keep hearing good things about it.

    @ Castor - Thanks Castor. No way is it in the league of the ones you mention. It's grimy, it's portrays the dark side of the American Dream, and it's an unflinching portrayal of criminals (who I guess aren't meant to be likeable) and it flirted with censorship (again), which is why it is famous. I just don't dig it.

  8. I agree with you almost completely. It's an enjoyable film, but far too long. There are much better films in its genre, and I think that the reason many (young) people like it is because it's become synonymous with America's hip hop culture, which I've never really understood.

    Curious: what's your favorite De Palma?

  9. Yeah, I could never understand why it was so popular within the hip hop subculture either. Maybe it got a second wind after it's evident influence on the GTA games. I guess it's the whole money/power thing - Montana was a high roller who seemed like he could have anything he wanted. The fact that he spat in the face of someone wielding a chainsaw and takes down a small army by himself in the end makes him even cooler.

    I haven't seen Carrie, which I have heard is pretty great. Blow Out either. I liked Dressed to Kill (though I have to watch it again - sleepy movie night viewing), The Untouchables, Carlito's Way and Mission Impossible. Probably The Untouchables. I hated Femme Fatale (with Antonio Banderas and Rebecca Romijn). How about you?

  10. Femme Fatale - didn't like at all and am still puzzled as to why Ebert hails it as a masterpiece.

    Sisters, Body Double and Blow Out would make a great triple feature. Haven't seen Dressed to Kill (always wanted to). Hmm, I think I'd have to go Blow Out.

    Although, I always thought Snake Eyes was undeservedly shit on.