Gangster Movie Month: "Scarface" Review

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Al Pacino stars as a Cuban refugee who rises to the top of Miami's cocaine-driven underworld, only to fall hard into his own deadly trap of addiction and inevitable assassination in this remake of the 1932 film of the same name. Directed by Brian De Palma, based on a screenplay by Oliver Stone.
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Gangster Movie Month: "Scarface" Review

-- Rating: R
Length: 170 minutes
Release Date: December 9, 1983
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Cast: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer

Cocaine has been such a prevalent recurring theme in Hollywood movies that it's hard to even imagine where would the movie industry be without this drug. Oliver Stone had such a cocaine habit while writing the script for "Scarface" that during his research trip to Cochabamba, Bolivia, to meet with a notorious cocaine smuggler, he actually managed to reduce his intake.

Hollywood's favorite drug finally got its due in the 1983 thriller "Scarface." It's actually fair to regard the marching powder as a kind of uncredited costar of the film, given that it was more omnipresent than catering tables on movie sets at the time. A movie telling the story of how the face Drano got from overseas producers to the Reagan-era financial services industry (If viewers remember the Savings and Loan crisis, they should know that freebase was a big part of that) was long overdue.

"Scarface" is fundamentally a love letter written by a major Hollywood studio to the high-octane disco dust that fueled some of its longest and most productive all nighters, told through the rise and fall of a plucky immigrant coke smuggler named Tony Montana (Al Pacino). Montana, who liked to pose as an anti-Castro political refugee, escapes to America during the Muriel boatlift, only to be spotted as a threat and lovingly tossed into a refugee camp under a Miami overpass. There, he gets his big break by accepting a contract to murder a former communist official.

Having demonstrated his willingness to do anything, Tony lands a job with Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), who's just the nicest cocaine smuggler in town. Push comes to shove, however, and for various reasons, Tony has to kill Frank and take his business, house, and wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). Business does well, as cocaine was kind of a growth industry just at that time, and after a brief montage, Tony is sitting on top of one of the world's biggest piles of money. It all ends in tears, as vice must always be punished in movies, and Montana goes down in the precise dictionary definition of a blaze of glory.

"Scarface" was officially a remake of an earlier Cagney film of the same name, although it's so thoroughly updated that hardly any points of similarity exist between the movies. Whether seen as a remake or not, "Scarface" did a very noble thing for its day. By promising a shallow morality play, "Scarface" lured all the wrong people into the theaters to see a heartwarming film about the triumph of justice only to lash them hard across the face with the message that horrifying monsters like Tony Montana can only exist because respectable pillars of the community were willing to drop millions on cocaine before turning right around and laundering those same millions for a reasonable fee. Indeed, this is the secret message of "Scarface," namely that overt bad guys like Tony-who are violent, tacky, and elusive-are actually bit players caught up in the rotten hypocrisy of a larger society that simultaneously hated filthy coke-dealing pigs and made them Croesus rich. It's the kind of thing kids need to learn before they graduate from high school, meaning the film's "R" rating is rather disappointing, even if the dozens of graphic onscreen murders do make it hard to relax.

The cast of "Scarface" is a mixed bag. Pacino works harder at being a totally over-the-top Tony than perhaps anybody has ever worked at anything. Not once does he accidentally let his fake accent slip, and never once does he forget the kind of sleazy operator he's playing. Steven Bauer, who actually is a Cuban immigrant, was a perfect Manny Ribera. Every Mr. Big needs a loyal No. 2, and Bauer plays it to the hilt and with a kind of natural ease that may make some viewers wonder if an actual warrant for his arrest on drug charges may have been issued somewhere. The wonderful F. Murray Abraham plays a magnificently sleazy lowlife pig, while Miriam Colon manages to exude such loathing for her character's crooked son that a viewer may actually flinch from her scorn. The only dark spot performance wise is the somewhat strained, unnatural delivery of Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira. Somehow, her pacing seems irredeemably off, and every line she reads through a bowl of dead fish breaks the fourth wall and reminds viewers that this is an actress delivering lines in a movie. More's the pity, as "Scarface" is otherwise a triumph of modern cinema. From the casting and the writing to De Palma's excellent direction and the underlying subject matter, "Scarface" is the movie cocaine was invented to inspire.

Rating: 4 out of 5