Scarface. One of my favourite gangster movies. Next year sees the release of the reboot, but today I’m talking about the ’80s version by Brian De Palma. Not for a second does this film let you pause to take a breather. That’s one of the main reasons why it’s so good. Many critics said the acting was over-the-top, but that was actually the whole point. Besides, who else could have pulled off such an extreme character, other than Al Pacino?
“Scarface wasn’t understood,” Pacino said. “It was more an underground movie. The critics didn’t get the joke.”
Since it was panned in its initial run, Scarface has become both a mainstream and cult classic. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ll be familiar with the film’s famous line ‘Say hello to my little friend,’ said by Pacino, as the ruthless Tony Montana, who rises to power and riches in the criminal underworld.
Set in 1980, Scarface is a tale of greed and corruption, an update of the 1932 original, and it starts with Tony Montana arriving in Miami, as a Cuban refugee. He’s being interrogated by the immigration officers when we first meet him. This early scene doesn’t just engage the viewer, it comes at you like an assault, immediately grabbing your attention through Tony’s cock-and-balls attitude.
Imagine you watched this film at the cinema when it came out. It’s a gangster movie, so you’d be expecting a slick, subtle human-drama, but within the first five minutes, the main character has verbally attacked everyone in the room: “I’m Tony Montana, a political prisoner from Cuba. And I want my fuckin’ human rights now!” Clearly, Scarface has what many other mobster movies lack, which is a rawness and an ‘in your face’ approach.
The film doesn’t care for working on the viewer’s emotions. Instead, it’s a bitter, violent, borderline sarcastic look at the dark sides of the American Dream. I never took the characters seriously on any human level. Every character is superficial and their lives don’t really matter. They’re not realistic and express themselves through action, particularly Montana, who acts first and asks questions later!
Pacino said, “Tony Montana was two-dimensional. I didn’t want to make him a three-dimensional character. What you see is what you get.”
Montana is the complete opposite of the calm, intelligent Michael Corleone from The Godfather. There is nothing sympathetic or likeable about him, but Pacino brings such a strong style and energy to his performance, that it makes the character so engrossing.
You’re made to have no personal connection to Montana. This is a man who doesn’t care about anything other than instant gratification. But, because of Pacino’s incredible screen presence, you can’t help but root for the guy, even throughout all of the atrocious acts he commits.
When you consider the amount of violence, drugs and constant swearing this film has, it’s kind of weird that I enjoy it so much. There’s nothing positive about Scarface. But the brutal message it delivers about excess and greed is what gives the film its enduring appeal. I don’t see it as a dumb movie about gangsters and shooting people, which many people think it is.
It doesn’t glamorise the way Montana rises up to become a notorious drug lord, but instead, the film criticises that lifestyle. In spite of the dark world the movie presents, there is a lot of humour, as well as many memorable, excellently shot sequences.
Scarface is far behind The Godfather on a technical and narrative front, but it’s one of the most entertaining gangster films to come out in the last thirty years. It’ll always be comically overblown, but it has burned its way into the cinematic history books. This is a must-see for any fan of the genre.
Writer: Oliver Stone
Director: Brian De Palma
Stars: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 170 min