Considering my last review was of Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, I figured it would make sense that my next review be Scarface.
The thing that hurt The Untouchables the most was that it was based on real events. De Palma’s style simply did not go well enough with historical figures. So, perhaps he is better suited for a fictional story. Oh sure, again, the backdrop is based upon real events. But there has never been a Tony Montana. And as much as gangster rappers aspire to be, there never will be a Tony Montana except on celluloid. Maybe this is where DePalma will shine.
I am sure most of you know the plot. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) comes to America as a refugee after spending some time in prison in Cuba. He tries to find work and live the American dream, but can only find low skill jobs like washing dishes at a food stand. He leaves to become a low man on a ladder of a notorious drug lead by Frank Lopez. Then, on a very large mountain of bullets, bodies, and blood, he takes over the crime syndicate for himself. Along the way, he tries to woo the beautiful Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) and protect his sister Gina from finding out about his work.
Yes, this is a remake of the Howard Hawks film. I do not want to compare the two for a few reasons. The most pressing one is that it has been quite some time since I have seen the original Scarface. But the update does not really match the original at all. Yes, the basic plot is the same. But then again, this feels almost like the adaptation of a classic play. Some motions, different actors, different directions, definitely a different setting.
Frankly, though, the best part of the film occurs right at the end. It is when a graphic informs the viewers that “This film is dedicated to Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht.” Positively incredible. In this age of remakes, would any filmmaker take time to respect their elders? For that matter, does any modern filmmaker know ANYTHING about their elders? I highly doubt it. At least, none appear to.
Also, yes, this is probably Al Pacino at his most frantic. But that works. I stopped noticing Pacino and began seeing Montana. It would be interesting to see how the rest of the cast treated him on the breaks. Probably from a very comfortable distance. The man looks as though he would be willing to kill anyone who crosses him. When he asks his attackers if they want to play rough, there is an overwhelming temptation to say no. I can see why Pacino loved this role. He seemed at home with it.
But what is this film about? Is it just another substance abuse cautionary tale? Considering the effect the film has had on our culture, I believe that such a dismissal is far too easy. Really, it is about a man who lived in the excesses of two different styles of government. We know Montana is a criminal; he admits as much when he comes to the U.S. He wanted to do nothing but live this life that he carved for himself. When he succeeds, he finds himself totally alone. Should we be surprised? Probably not. Both films are about a man who is punished for his own ego and his own materialism.
That is why I do not understand why the film has been embraced by the hip hop community. Do they all wish for this to be their fate? Perhaps they just focus on the rags to riches story without noticing the ending. Too depressing, let’s not even bother. But that is the point of the film. Materialism and egoism will eventually be punished. That is what the film is telling the people to beware of. It does not matter if one is a drug dealer, a CEO, or a Hollywood producer.
Does the film do a good job of conveying this message? On its own, it’s very effective. The promotion in the mainstream culture has dulled it’s message a little. But it’s still one of the best gangster movies ever made.