Scarface: Blowing Away the Blow Competition

He loved the American dream. With a vengeance.

Oliver Stone did an interesting thing. Rather than write a straight remake of the classic 1932 gangster movie, he changed a few details to give the new film a political context. In 1980, 125,000 Cubans fled to Miami as part of the Mariel boatlift; it was soon discovered that Castro had opened his prisons and a great many of the fugitives were criminals or mentally ill. What if, Stone thought, one of those criminals found the American dream in a perverted, blood-drenched way and became the new Al Capone, the new Scarface? It was a good idea… even if Stone was coked out when writing the script.

Tony Montana (Al Pacino) claims asylum in Miami and is transported to “Freedomtown”, a camp for Cuban refugees waiting for their green cards. Together with his friend Manny Ribera (Steven Bauer), Tony immediately makes an impact on the wealthy cocaine dealer Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) who, after Tony and Manny get their cards, offers them to work for him and make money fast. Tony is ambitious and quickly rises in this dirty world of cocaine and murder, but he can’t take his eyes off Lopez’s mistress Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer), something that ultimately puts the two men at odds. That’s a struggle Tony can handle, but his growing cocaine addiction becomes a problem. As Tony’s life begins to unravel, his overprotective relationship with his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) threatens to ruin the Montana family forever.

Violent sequences keep things lively
It’s great fun to study Pacino. He’s of course not a Cuban but a clever character actor who’s done his homework and manages to make us believe in his portrayal of this man. But it does become a problem that there isn’t a single aspect of Tony Montana that is at least a little bit likable or impressive; he remains an overly ambitious, doomed creep throughout the three-hour long movie and when he finally bites the dust it is not a moment too soon. The fact that certain rappers idolize him says something about them that isn’t exactly endearing. Many Cuban-Americans were offended by this film… although Tony’s mother does tell him at one point that it is people like him who give Cubans a bad reputation. Brian De Palma and Stone have made this simple (and very overrated) gangster movie an epic but a bloated running time doesn’t turn it into The Godfather the emotional and dramatic content isn’t as engaging. That said, Tony’s mental problems in regard to his sister are interesting (but hardly subtle) and several controversial, violent sequences (the chainsaw, the helicopter hanging, the operatic finale) keep things lively. Giorgio Moroder also wrote a very sad but dramatic theme for the character of Tony Montana.

De Palma has a cocky style that turns some people off… but you’re never exactly bored in spite of the film’s length. He did make great gangster movies after this one – Carlito’s Way (1993) and the masterpiece The Untouchables (1987). I guess he had to go back to the original Scarface, Al Capone, and focus on the men who brought him down in order to get sparks to fly for real.

Scarface 1983-U.S. 170 min. Color. Widescreen. Directed by Brian De Palma. Screenplay: Oliver Stone. Music: Giorgio Moroder. Cast: Al Pacino (Tony Montana), Steven Bauer (Manny Ribera), Michelle Pfeiffer (Elvira Hancock), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia, Miriam Colon… F. Murray Abraham.

Trivia: Sidney Lumet was allegedly considered for directing duties; John Travolta for the part of Manny.

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