Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 50 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Written by: Oliver Stone
Starring: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Paul Shenar, Robert Loggia, Miriam Colon, F. Murray Abraham & Harris Yulin
1983’s SCARFACE is one of the most famous gangster films of all-time. Stemming from Al Pacino’s inspiration to remake the 1932 gangster classic of the same name (which was loosely based on Al Capone), this brutal gangster flick delivers a whole lot of well-worn clichés in a shiny cinematic package. However, this three-hour predictable rise and fall of a Cuban “political refugee” turned drug kingpin sticks out for three big reasons: style, violence and an unforgettable character brought to the screen by Al Pacino (who had already left his mark on the crime genre as Michael Corleone in the first two GODFATHER films). SCARFACE is far from the greatest mob epic around, but still holds up as an entertaining gangster flick in spite of its many faults.
The year is 1980 and the place is Miami, Florida. Antonio Montana (Al Pacino) is a Cuban refugee who’s been sent to a refugee camp with his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer). Desperate to secure their green cards, Tony and Manny agree to take on a job as hired guns. However, this murderous act is nothing new to Tony. It becomes very clear that he had a checkered past in Cuba and has come to America to get what he believes is coming to him: the world. As Tony becomes involved with shady individuals and sticks his nose (literally) into the cocaine business, he works his way up the ladder for small-time mob boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). Soon, Tony’s ambitions force him to go his own way. Along this vicious path of blood and powder, he falls in love with coke-addict Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer), partners up with feared kingpin Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) and tries to maintain a skeleton of a moral compass. However, Tony forgets that what goes up must come down.
The best quality in SCARFACE is Al Pacino as the titular drug kingpin. Pacino’s performance as Tony Montana manages to be over-the-top, comically entertaining, and intensely frightening all at the same time. Many lines of dialogue would not be particularly memorable if not for the thickly-accented, furious way that Pacino delivers them in the film. Regardless of how familiar these gangster tropes may seem (they were already well-worn at the time of this film’s release), Pacino’s captivating portrayal of a fiery-tempered scumbag kept me watching out of sheer fascination with this character. Montana is a hot-headed, loud-mouthed, power-hungry asshole and the audience isn’t necessarily supposed to root for him, but rather watch his rise to and inevitable fall from power.
In this regard, Oliver Stone’s screenplay feels unbalanced. We are shown far more of Tony’s rise to power as opposed to his bullet-ridden fall from grace. The screenplay goes to the trouble of including two family-oriented scenes purely for a tragic pay-off during the story’s final act. A good scene would have been great if more attention had been paid to this subplot. The film also sets up a defining moral compass for Tony late into the story which feels a tad half-assed in regard to every violent act we have been shown up to that point. In a way, a seemingly out-of-nowhere good deed feels contradictory and cheap, serving only to further his downfall. Finally, two key rules are set up in advance for Tony…which he will obviously break later on. Still, these rule-breaking bits are rushed. At least Stone’s screenplay goes to the trouble of setting up these details up in advance, whereas other lesser gangster films wouldn’t even bother to put that effort in.
However, SCARFACE really drops the ball when it comes to the side characters. Michelle Pfeiffer was relatively unknown at the time of this movie’s release. Both Pacino and De Palma fought against her starring in the role of Elvira…and this may have contributed to her muted role as a paper-thin love interest. Elvira’s obligatory romantic subplot functions on a surface level of Tony falling head over heels for her and then abusing their relationship. As a result, Pfeiffer doesn’t make much as an impression thanks to her weak character and the romance being mainly reduced to a handful of brief scenes. Steven Bauer’s Manny isn’t much of a character either and comes off like a walking plot device. The same can be said for Tony’s mother and sister. Finally, the other gangsters seem like cardboard cut-outs. The only exception to this is Paul Shenar’s Sosa, an antagonist who seems off like a James Bond villain that specializes in smuggling cocaine and elaborately executing those who screw him over.
In spite of its many problems, SCARFACE’s sheer style and brutality make it stick out in an overcrowded genre of gangster flicks. You’ve seen money laundering in mob movies before, but have you seen it executed with a cheesy 80’s montage set to the song “Push It to the Limit”? That happens in this film and it’s hilarious. The soundtrack and score add entertainment to the clichéd proceedings, especially when paired with lots of glamour and glitz. Tony’s lavish lifestyle seems great…until you remember how he’s acquired it. The film’s bloody carnage isn’t on display from start to finish, but is executed in brutal spurts of violence. Chainsaws, hangings from helicopters, and an iconic final stand-off stick out as some of this movie’s most memorable moments. Also, the chainsaw scene had a few folks running for the exit upon this film’s premiere.
SCARFACE has left a legacy for three reasons: style, violence, and Pacino. Style keeps the clichéd proceedings entertaining, in spite of their one-note nature. This film’s violence was shocking at the time of its release and still comes off as pretty damn brutal from a modern stand-point, even lending itself to a very fun video game sequel SCARFACE: THE WORLD IS YOURS (which is basically GRAND THEFT AUTO with Tony Montana). Finally, Pacino is captivating as a loose cannon who rises in the ranks and ultimately keeps you guessing as to when his short fuse will burn out. If you like the crime genre, then you kind of have to see this movie just to say that you’ve seen it. SCARFACE is heavily flawed and has its far share of cardboard-thin clichés, but still holds up as an entertaining iconic gangster film.