In 1980, Fidel Castro allowed thousands of his countrymen to leave Cuba and join their families in the United States, but this supposed act of goodwill had an ulterior motive as he also included 25,000 criminals on the boats as a way of cleaning up his nation's problems with crime. One of those immigrants who landed in Florida was Tony Montana (Al Pacino), but when he was taken in by the authorities for questioning he refused to admit any wrongdoing in an attempt to avoid a criminal record...
Naturally, Tony doesn't stay out of trouble for long in this, the eighties remake of the Howard Hawks classic gangster movie made over fifty years before - this had a dedication to Hawks and his screenwriter Ben Hecht as tribute. They shared a lot in common, but there were marked differences as well, for example while they were both criticised for violence the update went far further, though with no less gusto, in that regard. But another difference was that while Hawks and director Brian De Palma were accused of glamourising the violence, in the former's case it only served to increase box office returns.
While the 1983 version was an expensive flop with the public, and for those who bothered, held up as an instance of going too far not being what the public wanted in their entertainment. Everything about this was excessive, from the bloodletting to the drug taking to the swearing, but perhaps the most excessive aspect was the amount of time it took to tell its story, nudging the three hour mark as if De Palma was taking a leaf out of Francis Ford Coppola's book and his Godfather films. He had secured the services of a rampantly method acting Pacino as the decadence-crazed supercapitalist, after all, so was only too happy to court the comparisons if it heightened the appreciation of his own efforts.
Therefore after Scarface wound up a financial disappointment, it fell into obscurity, right? Wrong, as its second wind was whipped up by the gangsta rap community: there may have been no African American characters worth mentioning in the whole running time, but something about Montana's aspirations spoke to the purveyors of the hip hop lifestyle, and seeing him eventually win his mansion, trophy wife (ice queen Elvira - Michelle Pfieffer) and all the cocaine and guns anyone could ever hope for was undeniably appealing to them. Therefore the movie's cult status only rose over the years as it turned iconic in showing what was possible if you wanted to be top dog in your chosen profession, and rules be damned.
But wait - wasn't this an essentially immoral tale? Was there nothing here, as Hawks and Hecht had been forced to do, that imparted a lesson that crime did not pay? Screenwriter Oliver Stone did that too, but put the words in the mouth of Tony's mother (Miriam Colon), a character seen as righteous but irrelevant in the tide of criminality her son has embraced, bringing down his sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) into the bargain. A bargain with the Devil, who collects eventually, but sees fit to offer Tony a way out which would be glorious in his bombastic mind. Before that, he has built up an empire doing it his way, unafraid to make a killing either in business or in real life, and crucially there was little but the beliefs of the audience to judge whether he had taken the wrong path or not as the movie positively revelled in this sordid but sleek drama. Yet just as a cocaine addict is better off in the company of other addicts, this Scarface lumbered as much as it lashed out, so if Tony was not your hero by the end, you would be left deadened by the whole affair. Music by Giorgio Moroder.
[Universal's Blu-ray is the ideal medium for something so glossy and flashy, so you won't be disappointed by the picture and sound. The extras are largely from the DVD special edition, loads of featurettes on every aspect of the movie, with the one about the edited TV version providing much amusement.]
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.