Scarface (1983), or Fuck Is Such A Versatile Word

25 04 2009

What is the deal with this movie being so damn popular? I don’t get it. I’ve always seen Scarface memorabilia in my life for as long as I care to remember; posters, T-shirts, screen-savers, baseball caps, personalized debit cards, super-soakers, lawn darts, garden gnomes, space stations, empty beer cans, strains of diseases, and a myriad of other random words strung together for comedic effect. I can’t understand the appeal for the life of me. Perhaps on some distant world where the rivers and oceans consist of pure testosterone and people make a living by acting like a bunch of thugs this sounds epic and meaningful, but in the real world, where I’m living right now, I don’t see anything really outstanding about the idea.

Al Pacino apes a bad Hispanic accent as he plays Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who comes to America after the Mariel Boatlift incident in 1980. Tony is a ruthless criminal who sees the American Dream as a template for his own garish designs for money, power, and women. He starts off as just a low-level drug dealer, but as time goes on his ambition pays off. He takes more and more high-risk jobs, eventually getting in good with his boss and rising quickly in the ranks. But that’s not enough for him. He wants it all, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it. It’s a series of Machiavellian twists and turns that leads straight to where one would expect it to.

Nothing about Scarface is very adequate to me. It’s the same old admonishment/celebration of a lifestyle that is as real as it is hollow and pointless. Tony is both beloved and reviled by the camera, who, while understanding the folly of it all, shows his rise to power as something of a fulfillment of the American Dream when Tony is just using that ideal as an excuse for the behavior he exhibits. This is a permutation of a story that has passed on down the ages for as long as there have been people around to tell it: ambition is good, but too much of it is bad.

Tony Montana is the main problem for me. Al Pacino plays him like Speedy Gonzales with an itchy trigger finger and a coke problem. It’s borderline insulting to watch this “Cuban” gallivanting around, spraying lines at the screen like, “I’m Tony Montana! You fuck with me, you fuckin’ with the best!” I’m surprised that a lot of people think that this is a good performance. This is bottom-tier work for him. He could do a lot better, because all I see here are stereotypes and bad one-liners that ring very hollow despite the apparent “realism” of it all.

The soundtrack is horribly dated. It’s all club music! Every single song is drenched in the blood of disco, and it grates on the nerves after about three seconds.It might be faithful to the time, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing here. European super-freak Giorgio Moroder composed most of the songs, so the blame is pretty squarely on him, but keep an ear out for a laugh-inducing song featuring Debbie Harry here called “Rush Rush”. It’s dance-tastic!

This was supposed to be a remake, believe it or not, of the Scarface from 1932. That film directed by the ingenious Howard Hawks and produced by the eccentric Howard Hughes, was good in its own right, though perhaps not on par with some of Hawks’s later films. It was also based on the life of Al Capone, who caused a bit of an uproar around that time for his ultra-illegal activities. Well, for the 50-year anniversary of the original, I guess they decided that the movie needed a little 80s chutzpah, so they put in a director that had done a lot of horror/thriller work to punch it up to 11. Brian DePalma is a good director, but in Scarface he throws out a lot of mixed signals. For the action sequences he saturates the screen with a surreal amount of violence and hyper-emoting. But for most other scenes, he drains the emotion out of everything and leaves the characters with nothing but greasy street-smarm. Is that how people are on the streets of Miami; walking receptacles of insults and attitude? It seems a little disingenuous, and it is a strange seemingly-conscious decision on DePalma’s part.

I did not care for this film at all. As I said, DePalma is a good director, and I think he does a good job when it came to the shoot-out sequences (of which there are plenty), but that could not save it for me. Pacino and supporting cast members, including Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Loggia, really stink up the joint, and considering how long the movie is I was hoping to get more emotional or intellectual significance out of these characters. But, alas, it was not meant to be. It’s a tired story of blind ambition retreaded for the cocaine decade, and while that’s interesting in theory, in practice it falls apart under the trappings of a stale concept that needed revitalization instead of just resuscitation. So if you like action sequences scored to a track of 80s Euro-beats and Loggins-esque drum machine antics, fake Cubans with filthy mouths, and off-kilter remakes of 1930s hit films, Scarface is your movie, and you’ve probably already watched it, own it on DVD, and have a Scarface-brand Band-Aid on your booster shot right now. Me, I’ll pass. I give Scarface 3 1/2 “Cubans” out of 10.

Keep an eye out today for my review of a movie still in theaters! Coming up: The Night Out!

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