Even if I somehow become rich enough, I’ll never make it on MTV’s Cribs. I could fill a whole article with reasons why, or I could just say this: unlike every other guy who’s ever been on the show, I’ll never own a poster from the movie Scarface. I know this it’s almost sacrilege to say this, but I don’t like Brian De Palma’s gangster opus all that much.
The plan was to remake the 1932 film from legendary director Howard Hawks, which was loosely based on the life of Al Capone. Writer Oliver Stone understood that transplanting a Prohibition story to 1983 rmeant changing its subject into a cocaine kingpin. The film boasts about being based on a true story, but don’t put too much stock in that. Yes, the 1980 Mariel boatlift did contain a lot of Cuban criminals, to the point that Fidel Castro always and still refers to the Miami Cuban community as a “mafia.” And yes, the Miami gangs were a major vector for cocaine entering the U.S. But Tony Montana as played by Al Pacino is a creation, a character too weird for the movies and too perfect for real life.
I think Scarface is the perfect movie for the internet era. It has the sort of style where about half of it is the BEST FILM EVAR OMG, and the other half is absolute FAIL. The best-film-ever parts actually are among the best sequences ever shot; de Palma has no peer when it comes to constructing the visuals in a scene. Stone’s dialogue is great throughout, although I’m a little tired of hearing the best lines quoted over and over; yes, yes, your balls and your word are all you have, I get it already.
The big reason I don’t like Scarface all that much is that I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be telling me. You’ll sometimes hear the movie described as a broadside against the consumer culture of the ‘80s, a symbol of everything bad (if you’re an economist concerned with wealth inequality) or good (if you came up from nothing and can now afford the Tony Montana lifestyle) about the American dream.
Except this is not Wall Street, where every single character conflict in the movie is motivated by somebody’s greed. Some of Tony’s problems are about money, and some are more … unusual. His wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a trophy, more of a drug-game conquest than a sexual conquest. His best friend (Steven Bauer) betrays him not for money but for the love of his little sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, making her acting debut), with whom Tony has a creepy semi-incestuous bond that no historian would confuse with Reaganomics.
Those might be problems with the script, or it might be the supporting actors. As I said above, Pfeiffer doesn’t give us much reason to care about her; her cool brush-offs of Tony are fun at first, but as the marriage spirals out of control we lose all concept of what she’s feeling. Mastrantonio fares better, because she looks so innocent next to Tony’s creepy coveting of her, but she still ends up as wild-eyed as Pacino and it doesn’t suit her. And Robert Loggia as Tony’s first boss … actually, this deserves its own paragraph.
Loggia plays a character who acts like a master, but is really just full of shit, and Tony is supposed to know it from minute one. In similar situations the actor might choose to play the character as a bit of a buffoon, maybe with some bluster. Loggia’s performance is crazy. I don’t mean he plays it like the character is crazy, I mean I thought de Palma had slipped him an overdose of LSD before they started shooting. Shouting his lines, screaming out laughter at random for no real reason, his face well beyond “ruddy” and approaching “radiation burned” … maybe he was trying to play it like the character was getting high on his own supply. Anyway, it comes off as sheer insanity, and a lot of other aspects of Scarface are the same way.
Your opinion of Scarface is probably going to be tied to what you think of Al Pacino’s performance in the title role. Most glowing reviews say that he was completely in control of himself, but I’m not so sure. Pacino takes Spinal Tap’s advice in the movie’s most famous scenes, going to 11 as needs be. In some of those scenes, such as “Say goodnight to the bad guy,” it’s a good decision and it improves the scene.
In many more scenes, though, it seems to me that Pacino is just giving us 11 instead of playing a reason for Tony Montana to be at 11. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always entertaining when Pacino goes to 11, but it’s not always great acting. Compare your favorite Scarface scene with the famous “I’m reloaded!” scene from another De Palma/Pacino collaboration, Carlito’s Way (scroll to about 4:30 of this YouTube clip). Pacino plays that scene tense throughout, giving us someone who turns it up to 11 legitimately, because he’s on a bluff that is his only chance to survive.
In fact I would go so far as to say that Carlito’s Way is the Great Movie everyone claims Scarface is. I prefer Pacino as Carlito much more than Tony Montana. Among the female leads I like Penelope Ann Miller’s work the most. Carlito’s Way has a more nuanced script: Stone wrote Scarface the same way that Pacino acted it, simply going to 11 whenever in doubt. There’s no creepy incest subplot in Carlito’s Way. Plus, no supporting actor in Scarface delivers a performance as brilliant as Sean Penn’s in Carlito’s Way.
I guess my biggest issue with Scarface is that it’s just so bizarre. Tony Montana’s weird relationship with his sister, Robert Loggia’s way-way-way-over-the-top performance, even the final shootout … when you put it all together it just seems like too much. De Palma, Stone, and Pacino want to deliver an operatic epic, but just because you’re singing your lines as loud as you can doesn’t mean you’re making an opera.
Reviewed by Mark Young. This is an expanded and revised version of a review I wrote in 2010 for this article on the website Murmur.com.