Director: Brian DePalma
Gangster movies are an odd genre. They rarely present us with truly likeable characters or try wrapping things up with a cute little bow of happiness like other movies. Instead, they oftentimes take us inside the minds of flawed people that commit evil acts in order to prosper. Such is the case with movies like the Godfather trilogy, Casino, and Heat, but perhaps the most indicative of this is Brian DePalma's Scarface. A loose remake of the 1932 Howard Hawks classic (which itself drew inspiration from the career of legendary gangster Al Capone), Scarface spins the polar opposite of the Corleone family around the excesses of the 1980s, using the result to tell the tale of an immigrant who lived his own version of the American Dream.
The movie opens in 1980 during the Mariel Boatlift. If you've never heard of the Mariel Boatlift, let's learn us some history, okay? From April 15 to October 31, 1980, Cuban president Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel Harbor for anyone wishing to join their relatives in the United States. This prompted a mass exodus that saw thousands of Cubans arrive in southern Florida, the majority of them storming the beaches of Miami. Out of the 125,000 immigrants, an estimated twenty percent of these had criminal records. Turns out Castro was playing a big joke on America, shipping out criminals with the weary and huddled masses. It's sort of like a Castro-ized version of Punk'd. Anyway, two of these exiled criminals are street thug Tony Montana (Al Pacino) and ladies man Manny Ray (Steven Bauer), who arrive in Miami with dreams of a better life. Manny hustles them a commission to kill a fellow internment camp resident that pissed off local Mafia drug dealer Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham); their success earns Tony and Manny a fresh new pair of green cards as a reward. The duo tries their hands at earning an honest wage as dishwashers at a taco stand in Little Havana. Unfortunately, since doing legitimate work gets them nowhere, they turn to Omar for work on the wrong side of the law.
Tony and company are soon hired for a cocaine exchange by Omar. The exchange goes sour (resulting in one of Tony's associates being chainsawed to death), but Tony's crew comes through with both the drugs and their money in tow. His success earns Tony the respect of Omar's boss, Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), who brings Tony and Manny on as part of his drug ring. Tony's star in the organization quickly rises, and he immediately gains wealth and power beyond his wildest dreams, as well as an eye for Frank's consort Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). Frank begins to view his new lieutenant as a threat after catching him flirting with Elvira, and attempts to have Tony snuffed out. Tony lives, and he isn't too happy with his boss. He violently supplants Frank as kingpin, and Tony's authority grows by leaps and bounds with Manny as his right-hand man. His reach even spreads to South American cocaine factories, where we see Montana enter into a business partnership with Bolivian drug czar Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar). But if this were Behind The Music, this is where the announcer would say "...and it all came crashing down." Tony frequently butts heads with Manny and Elvira. He has a falling-out with his mother (Miriam Colon), while growing increasingly possessive and protective of his younger sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). He even gets busted for money laundering and faces up to five years in prison. Combining that with his high greed and paranoia, Tony soon spirals out of control as his empire starts falling apart.
Owing more to The Godfather than the original Howard Hawks movie, Scarface is a gangster movie if there ever was one. Every character has at least some share in the pie that is organized crime, no matter how trivial it may seem. Only one of the characters is likeable at all (Tony and Gina's mother), yet the viewer is drawn to each of them. They don't conform to the usual gangster movie clichés that we're used to, but I wouldn't expect that out of a movie written by Oliver Stone. Like the Scarface directed by Howard Hughes, Brian DePalma's Scarface drew much controversy upon its initial release due to its content. Excessive profanity, insane amounts of cocaine use and abuse, and lots and lots of gratuitous violence weren't exactly the norm back in 1983. There's death via grenade launcher (the "say hello to my little friend" scene), death via chainsaw fu, death via hanging from a helicopter, and a rather high number of deaths via gunfire. However, when held up against the cast of characters, the violence is essential to the plot. Oliver Stone's script isn't about giving us a tidy little story and making its lead character a loveable scamp. It's about the rags to riches life (along with the ensuing downfall) of an international drug czar in the early '80s.
As I sad above, the movie doesn't strictly adhere to the usual crime drama clichés, where everyone has a certain label. You know what I mean: the greedy boss, the faithful sidekick, the boss's superficial wife. Yeah, those characters are in Scarface, but they're more than just clichés. They're not cookie-cutter characters, they're actual criminals. The script is filled with memorable moments and dialogue, and Stone wisely shies away from softening Tony. He remains unchanged from start to finish, a snake that believes that the world is his. Stone's writing and Al Pacino's acting give us a character that is far from sympathetic, but is someone who can be bizarrely identified with. Tony wants to be rich and powerful, have sex with beautiful women, have people do whatever he asks, and not have to work all that hard for it. Who doesn't want that? Tony has wealth, power, and a beautiful wife, but none of it brings him happiness. He has all of the luxury, but none of the comfort. Perhaps the most indicative scene is one near the end of the movie. We see Tony at dinner, drunkenly ranting and asking himself if he really has all life has to give. It seems as if he realized that true happiness is comes from not from material possessions, but from inside. But the catch is that inside, he's just hollow. He'd become a slave to his own flaws, and by the time he'd realized it, it was too late.
George Alonzo's wonderful cinematography and Giorgio Moroder's music both benefit the movie as well. Known for writing songs by bands such as Blondie, many of his songs in the movie are distant and impersonal, with no real connection to its listeners. Sure, the songs are horrendously bad twenty years after the fact, but in 1983, they worked. Moroder's synthesized techno-pop score near the end sets a fine tone, especially for the finale. Meanwhile, Alonzo's cinematography coupled with DePalma's direction give the movie a distinct visual flair. The movie begins with wide shots that capture the size of Tony's empire, slowly transitioning to smaller shots as the foundation crumbles underneath him. The cast, both lead and supporting, give wonderful performances. The whole show is held together by Al Pacino, who plays the complete antithesis of his role as Michael Corleone from The Godfather. Michael Corleone is calm, cool, and intelligent; Tony Montana is short-tempered, reckless, and impulsive. The sheer contrast between Michael Corleone and Tony Montana is a testament to Pacino's talent. If his acting is too over the top, it's because it has to be. Tony Montana is that kind of character. And who better to play the opposite of Michael Corleone than Michael Corleone himself? Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are also entertaining. Bauer's portrayal of Manny is fun to watch, playing him as a self-absorbed Don Juan who slowly gets fed up with his boss's own egotism, making a good semi-comedic foil for Tony. Pfeiffer wonderfully depicts Elvira as a gold-digging junkie, which makes sense since it's kinda obvious that there's no love between her and Tony. She just sticks around for the drugs and the money, which has to be the only reason that the two stay married. And Mastrantonio gets to take part in perhaps the movie's creepiest subtext. I mentioned that Tony is protective of Gina, right? Well, the movie starts with Tony making attempts to be a good brother, trying to keep Gina from going out with guys like him. He knows he's rotten, and he knows she can do better than a guy like him. As the movie progresses, it develops more and more and Tony looks like he has something resembling a incestuous attraction to her. So Tony's a coke addict and he apparently wants to bang his sister. I'm not Dr. Phil or anything, but I'd say that guy has some serious issues. And whoever did Mastrantonio's hair should be shot. Her hair looks like a cross between Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons and Justin Guarini from American Idol. It does her no favors, I'll definitely say that much.
While I find the movie's reputation to be a tad bit exaggerated, its influence cannot be denied. One could argue that with out Scarface, there would be no Carlito's Way. There would be no Goodfellas. There would be no The Sopranos. And without Scarface, at least 85 percent of the rap community would be out of work. The movie is a great character study, a snapshot of someone who came in search of the American Dream, but when he found it, he still turned up emptyhanded. To Tony Montana, the world was his for the taking. But unfortunately, the world was not enough.
Final Rating: ****½