Pacino gets by with Some Help from his Little Friend
Brian De Palma's remake of "Scarface" is held in such high esteem that for many the thought of it ever being remade is a travesty. But to be blunt is it really that good, is it that great a gangster movie that to remake it or re-imagine it would be to do a major wrong. Frankly I don't think it is that great, oh it is better than many a gangster movie but it tells a storyline, a rise and fall of a gangster which isn't that unique and features some woefully over the top performances as well as dodgy acting and accents. Maybe back in 1983 it was good, although it didn't do that well at the Box Office, but watching "Scarface" now it's hard not to spot the issues and wonder why so many people love it.
Having been one of the thousands of Cuban Refugees who entered the United States in the 1980 Mariel Harbor boat lift, Tony Montana (Al Pacino - Ocean's Thirteen) and his friend Manny (Steven Bauer) soon realise that working in a kitchen is not for them. So when they get the opportunity to make some money for themselves in a drugs deal they except it and whilst the deal goes bad Tony and Manny come out of it with both the money and the drugs. Impressed by Tony local big boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia - An Officer and a Gentleman) makes him one of his main men, showing him the ropes and the pleasures of being the main man. But Tony wants it all too, he wants the money, the power and Frank's girl Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer - Stardust) and he plans to get it all as well.
Now from a storyline point of view "Scarface" isn't that special, a rise and fall of a gangster has been done in a range of movies both before this remake and since. And as such you could say that "Scarface" is predictable, you know that with Tony wanting the world he will claw his way to the top only for it all to come crashing down. That in itself isn't a huge problem because as already mentioned it is a storyline which has been explored by other gangster movies.
And to be honest the fact that "Scarface" is built around a series of cliche relationships isn't that much of an issue either. Being cliche you know that Tony will initially look up to Frank as the man he wants to be but will eventually do the dirty on him to become him. And it is because he wants to be Frank he goes after his woman, Elvira, not because he loves her but because she is the attractive girlfriend which Tony wants to possess. On top of this you have the brotherly friendship between Tony and Manny which reaches breaking point when Manny ends up secretly dating Tony's sister Gina. The only really interesting or at least seemingly interesting relationship is between Tony and his sister Gina because his protective nature often borders on more than just brotherly. But sadly whilst this relationship is pivotal to Tony's fall it's not that well handled.
But here is a problem, "Scarface" is 170 minutes long and for me is a movie with a lot of padding. In between the scenes where we watch Tony claw his way up to become the main man we have such irrelevant scenes such as Tony and Manny at some form of club trying to chat up women. It is a scene which adds nothing to the story but drags on much longer than is needed and there are plenty more of these irrelevant scenes which end up swelling the running time and dragging things out.
It's not all bad and De Palma crafts some seriously brilliant and memorable scenes. The initial drug deal which Tony and Manny go on for Frank has this stunning element of horror as it goes wrong and the "bad guys" pull out a chainsaw. You never see anything other than blood splatters but the noise of the chainsaw and what is implied is enough to send chills running down your spine. And then there is the ending which for me is ambiguous; because it is so over the top you aren't sure if that was just poor direction or De Palma attempting to parody the over the top action of vintage gangster movies. If only some of the pointless scenes had been left on the cutting room floor "Scarface" would have been a much better movie.
Now this pains me to say this but whilst Al Pacino is one of cinema's greats his performance and indeed his casting in "Scarface" is all wrong. It is such a forced performance from Pacino that Tony Montana ends up feeling like a caricature, a caricature with a very bad Cuban accent. Pacino is still entertaining because he brings a touch of menace to the character but you find yourself laughing at the wrong times because it feels so forced. And Pacino is not the only one as Robert Loggia is just as forced whilst Steven Bauer as best friend Manny is so stiff through out you begin to wonder whether again this was De Palma trying to be clever and parody older gangster movies. It gets to the point that you stop taking the characters or performances seriously because pretty much every single one is flawed.
So why is "Scarface" held in such high esteem? Part of me wonders whether it was a generational thing. It may not have done brilliantly when first released but it certainly gained notoriety for the explicit language and yes I am on about the word fuck appearing in almost every minute. Maybe that caused it to become popular in an almost underground way during the 80s and whilst no longer shocking has obtained a cult status because of it, with younger generations feeling obliged to proclaim its greatness because so many have done so before. Whether it is a generational thing or not "Scarface" certainly has given us some iconic scenes from the night club scene where Tony having got to the top realises it is not as glorious as he thought it would be through to the often quoted "Say hello to my little friend!".
What this all boils down to is that whilst seriously flawed Brian De Palma's "Scarface" is a good movie and an above average gangster movie. It is iconic be it for some memorable scenes or for some bad accents but it is also over long and not that different to many other gangster movies. Maybe for those who first saw it back in the 80s it has that something special about it, maybe the expletive littered dialogue still shocks but watching it now "Scarface" is not for me the classic which some people proclaim it to be.