After two movies in as many weeks, it might be too early to say that Brian De Palma is a hack of a director, but that’s where my heart is beginning to lean. In my film studies class, just one week after watching the 1932 Scarface, we watched the De Palma helmed remake (which was itself only a week or so after I happened to watch De Palma’s later film The Untouchables). Regular readers know how much I disliked the Howard Hawks Scarface, and as my gut memory was telling me, Brian De Palma’s version isn’t much better. A gory and expletive filled ride into the cocaine crime glory days of the 1980s, 1983’s Scarface is as hollow as Tony Montana’s heart.
Take Tony Camonte, make him Cuban, and have his business be cocaine instead of booze, and you get an idea of the kind of man that Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is. Fresh off the boat from Cuba, Montana is a career criminal that has his eyes set on capturing his slice of the American dream, even if it means killing scores of men to get to the top. With his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer), Tony works his way up the cocaine business, first under the tutelage of Frank Lopez (Big‘s Robert Loggia). Tony’s take-no-shit attitude and almost psychopathic fury make him a natural player in the cut-throat world of the booming cocaine explosion.
But it’s the same qualities that make Tony such a natural as an enforcer and paid tough that prove to be what propels him to the top of the business and then cause his ignominious downfall. Tony quickly falls for Frank Lopez’s beautiful wife Elvira (The Age of Innocence‘s Michelle Pfeiffer), and when he sees the chance to stake out on his own with the help of a true Bolivian drug lord, Tony plants the seeds of a massive drug empire that Frank Lopez could barely imagine. But his insane jealousy surrounding his sister Gina (The Color of Money‘s Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and his own perverse code of ethics prove to be his undoing.
I’m a big Al Pacino. Along with Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson, he’s easily one of the greatest actors of his generation. And it pains me to say that Scarface is one of the worst performances of his entire career. Maybe it’s the god-awful Cuban accent (which sounds so unnatural coming from his mouth) or the way that Pacino’s usual explosive intensity seems so artificial. Nothing about Tony Montana, from the performance to the writing, feels natural or realistic. There are small moments here and there where Pacino is able to remind you why he’s one of the greatest actors of all time, but he spends too much of Scarface chewing up the scenery without revealing any of Tony’s depth.
And the supporting performances are equally atrocious. Robert Loggia has proven himself time and time again to be one of Hollywood’s most capable intimidators (just watch Lost Highway if you need proof of that), but his Frank Lopez seems to be a soft balloon and not always in the intentional sense. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio wowed so much in The Color of Money which makes Gina’s vacuity in this film that much more disappointing. Steven Bauer finds the cocksure swagger that makes Manny such a ladies man, but much like Pacino, he ultimately reduces the character to a tired racial stereotype.
The film’s best aspect is the killer score and a sense for the fashion and visual dynamics of the early 1980s which it managed to both represent as well as ultimately shape because of the film’s huge influence on how the 1980s are perceived. The period songs that are used in the soundtrack are in fact so great that Grand Theft Auto 3 had a 1980s station that played nothing but songs from this movie’s soundtrack and Giorgio Moroder’s score was a beautiful evocation of the sun-soaked Miami that became Tony’s cocaine playground. Throw in the bright colors and pastels of the film’s costumes and sets, and the movie just feels like an archetype of the 1980s.
Much like The Untouchables, Brian De Palma just over-directs virtually every sequence of the film with unnecessary frills and flourishes that don’t enhance the viewer’s interaction with Scarface but rather remind you that you’re watching a nearly three-hour bloated bit of cinematic artifice. Although I distinctly remember enjoying De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie, both Scarface and The Untouchables paint De Palma as a man who is unwilling to put even the most basic of trust in to his script and his storytelling and that he must instead beat the audience over the head with over-the-top visual stimulus.
De Palma’s Scarface is at times a nearly scene-for-scene remake of the original. Oliver Stone wrote the script for the film (I can only imagine how much better this film would have been had he directed it) and so it will occasionally contain a bit of the political commentary that Stone later became known for, but De Palma sucked the life out of any intelligence the script might have originally had by shooting it with such a blunt and merciless style that is devoid of either cinematic poetry or cinematic truth. The movie tends to be shockingly violent and crude almost only for the sake of being shockingly violent and crude without any message to back it up.
All of those major complaints aside, Scarface is still visceral and stimulating enough to keep you engaged for its nearly three hour long running time. Had a more capable director been at the helm and had the excess fat been cut, this could have been a great film. As it is, Scarface is a fun reminder of the excess of the 1980s and perhaps the shallow soullessness that defined a decade when Ronald Reagan was president and cocaine was king. This is not a film that deserves to rank aside the all-time great crime classics, but if you don’t find yourself roused by its explosive finish, you should probably get your adrenal gland checked.
Final Score: B-