Directed by: Brian De Palma || Produced by: Martin Bregman
Written by: Oliver Stone || Starring: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia, F. Murray Abraham
Music by: Giorgio Moroder || Cinematography by: John A. Alonzo || Editing by: Gerald B. Greenberg, David Ray || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 170 minutes
I recall the first time I popped in this disc from Family Video (remember those?) and saw fleeting footage of Pacino making his last stand with vicious sprays from an assault rifle. Even from those few seconds of footage, I could tell this would be an intense, visceral experience of a film. By the end of the near three hour-movie, I sat wowed at how the movie had delivered on everything it teased — and how damned, freaking cool Al Pacino is.
Brian De Palma’s Scarface is a visual exercise in dramatic pacing, storytelling, and Pacino’s versatile acting. The film often draws comparisons with what I believe to be the greatest motion picture of all time, The Godfather (1972), as both movies deal with famous gangster mythology and star iconic leads. However, the two films and Al Pacino’s characters in both of them couldn’t be more different. They are both organized criminals of sorts, yes, but they are different types gangsters with disparate motives. While Michael Corleone descended into the mafia world to protect his family and maintain their dominance, honer, and influence, Tony Montana is just what the movie poster says he is: A man who loved the American Dream… with a vengeance. An exile from Cuba, Montana is a character who, above all else, strives to be himself in the most glorious and violent way possible. To Montana, the most appealing way to achieve that potential is the pursuit of the American Dream — something that was denied to him during his years as a criminal in Cuba.
Pacino’s Scarface-character is a violent, visceral celebration of individualism, while also illustrating the consequences of its excess. Montana’s ambition knows no bounds, save for the promise to himself to always be himself. In his own words, “All I have in this world is my balls and my word, and I don’t break ’em for no one.” Scarface isn’t so much a story of character-transformation as it is an analysis of what happens when ambition, rage, and passion are carried to their natural extremes. The film executes this concept stupendously well. I have seen very, very few character-studies better than this.
The personality and drive behind one of Pacino’s most famous roles can be seen everywhere in Scarface. His blunt, no-bullshit manner is both celebrated and condemned by the world around him. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and sticks to his moral code (his word and his balls), and this film displays how that is both the genesis of his rise and fall. Tony Montana is the type of guy who says what he means and means what he says. He does not lie or deceive. He is also the kind of man who can take down anybody who looked him in the face, but not those who struck from the shadows, those who struck from behind — and the gangster world in which he inhabits is full of both types of enemies.
The depiction of Tony’s passion extends to the film’s period set-design, the rich primary colors of coastal Miami and the over-the-top, glamorous architecture of gangster-penthouses and the expansive, intimidating presence of secluded druglord mansions. The world of Scarface flaunts the extravagant, hyper-conservative, and leisurely attitude of the 1980s, and yet that style now feels reminiscent of a bygone era, both in the world of crime and filmmaking. The graphic nature of its violence and sexuality, as well as its apparent disregard for subtlety and political correctness, is jarring and refreshing when viewed from a modern context. On the other hand, the handheld camerawork and explosive spectacle of the film’s climax feels more modern in tone, perhaps hinting at the versatility and dynamic nature of action-scenes to come. Regardless of Brian De Palma’s foresight, every aspect of the film’s production, from its set-design to its gore FX to its colorful, exaggerated characters, screams the mindset of its protagonist and the flamboyant gangster lifestyle he seeks.
Much like the pacing of other extremely long, classic films (e.g. The Godfather , Seven Samurai , LOTR [2001-2003], Saving Private Ryan ), Scarface’s story and set-pieces flow naturally, making its two hours and fifty minutes feel about the right length. The gritty, often gory violence of the gangster conflicts are interspersed throughout the larger examination of Montana’s development, rise to power, and ultimate downfall. Director DePalma and famed writer Oliver Stone craft the perfect cartel enforcer-epic from the framework of the 1932 New York-gangster film of the same name.
Scarface is one of the most theatrical, melodramatic, and passionate dramatizations of organized crime in America. The reason why Scarface resonates so strongly with so many people is that Pacino’s timeless performance melds with a cinematic, megalomaniacal diegesis that tells an unforgettable tale of his character’s rise and fall. It’s colorful in every respect — its characterizations, its setting, its violence, and particularly its narrative.
That, and the riotous ending doesn’t hurt either. Scarface’s climax rocks so much because, not only is it spectacularly entertaining, it also sums up the character of Tony Montana in such a beautiful and tragic way. For that is what Scarface ultimately is: A tragedy of epic and violent proportions. I won’t say anything beyond that concerning the theme and ending of the film, save for the fact there isn’t anything else like them in cinema.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Scarface is a tenacious, ferocious character-study, lead by a tenacious, ferocious performance from Al Pacino in one of his most iconic roles. Its great lines are surpassed by perhaps only The Godfather and Gone with the Wind (1939). As a thoroughbred gangster drama, it is the perfect yin to The Godfather’s yang, boasting unforgettable characters, action scenes, and over-the-top melodrama.
— However… the latter half of the film occasionally drags, as can some of the cornball 1980s music, which dates the movie in the worst ways.
? So much cocaine, so little time to snort it.