Scarface was greeted with almost universally bad reviews on its release in 1983 – perhaps Al Pacino’s return to the gangster genre after The Godfather a decade earlier led critics to expect a serious sombre thriller, or maybe Brian De Palma’s wholesale trashing of Howard Hawks’ 1932 classic was an affront to their professional sensibilities. Twenty years on, it’s hard not to see the film as anything but a demented black comedy, as widely quoted as Spinal Tap and Withnail & I, with a spectacularly over-the-top performance from Pacino.
Tony Montana is a Cuban exile who arrives in Miami seeking fortune in the US. He and his friend Manny (Steven Bauer) have little interest in cleaning dishes in a fastfood van, so jump at the chance to perform a drug handover for Miami mobster Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). Pretty soon they’re on Frank’s payroll, and Tony has seen the opportunity to make a lot more money than Frank is willing to risk, by trafficking drugs from Bolivia under the noses of the local druglords.
Scarface is long and sprawling, but Oliver Stone’s screenplay provides little opportunity for subtlety or deep insight. Tony Montana is brought vividly to life by Pacino whose Cuban accent is so thick it’s sometimes difficult to make out what’s he’s saying, but who gives the role a level of intensity second only to his performance in Dog Day Afternoon. Whether he’s trying to smarm his way past US immigration, sweet-talk Frank’s icy mistress Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) or blowing seven shades of shit out his enemies in a cocaine-fuelled rage, its hard to take your eyes off Pacino, and full marks to Bauer for sharing so many scenes and not being acted off the screen.
De Palma and Stone take a very linear approach the material, charting Tony’s accession through the Miami underworld, from his usurping of Frank as cocaine king to the inevitable downfall that his paranoid, coke-induced mania brings. Along the way we have a check list of bloody delights – the infamous chainsaw sequence, F. Murray Abraham’s enforcer getting hung from a helicopter, various stabbings, garottings and shootings, and the near-operatic climax in which Tony faces down an army of Bolivian gunmen in his own home. Classic lines come thick and fast – “This town’s like a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked!”, “Say hello my little friend!” – while the lavish production design, Georgio Moroder’s synth score and the 80s fashions provide a suitably gaudy period feel.
For all its shallow bombast, Scarface does occasionally touch on themes that could have done with some development. Tony’s relationship with his mother (Miriam Colon) and sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, sporting monstrously big hair) is interesting; Mama Montana fears that her son will take pure, naive Gina over to the dark side of drugs and crime, while Gina is more than happy to help Tony share in his new found wealth. Ironically, Tony himself is fixated with the idea of Gina as an innocent, so much so that any man who even dares lay a finger upon her gets to feel his wrath. Which is bad news for poor old Manny, who is starting to fall in love with her. Mastrantonio plays the part of the confused younger sibling superbly, but De Palma is generally more interested in character surfaces than depth. Approached in the right frame of mind though, Scarface remains a guiltily enjoyable, one-of-a-kind spectacle.
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.