Universal // 1983 // 170 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // November 17th, 2003
He Loved the American Dream. With a Vengeance.
Make way for the bad guy.
In 1983, cocaine was still a glamorous drug to much of America, suffused with a dangerous allure. Gangsta rap was a few years away, and most people's idea of organized crime began and ended with La Cosa Nostra. Colombian drug kingpins like Pablo Escobar had yet to become household names. Hollywood, still cranking out relatively genteel crime flicks in the Godfather mold, was, in the words of Tony Montana, like a great big p*ssy just waiting to get f*cked. Then Scarface blasted onto the screen, and Tony Montana introduced the world to his little friend; the face of pop culture would bear the scars of his passage ever after.
Directed by Brian De Palma from an Oliver Stone screenplay, and starring an incendiary Al Pacino at the height of his powers, Scarface redefined the gangster movie and set a new standard -- or low, as many appalled critics would have it -- for cinematic violence, profanity, and sheer bravado.
As controversial as it was in its time, Scarface is now an indelible part of the popular consciousness: Tony Montana has supplanted Vito Corleone as the archetypal crime boss, quotes from the movie have entered the American lexicon, and the film's macho theatrics and gaudy materialism have been adopted as the blueprint for hip-hop culture.
In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the woman.
The year is 1980. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, as a big f*ck-you to his capitalist running dog neighbor to the north, has sent his country's undesirables packing, including convicts flushed out of his prisons. The resulting flood of refugees washing up on the shores of southern Florida brings with it a wave of criminal activity.
Eager to get in on the action is Antonio Montana (Pacino), ex-prisoner and hit man, and his best friend Manolo (Cuban-born Steven Bauer). Literally carving his way to freedom, Tony, along with his crew, hit the streets of Miami hungry for a slice of the American Dream.
Tony, a man for whom "ambitious" is too weak a word, quickly rises up the ranks of the Cuban underworld. Relentless, shrewd, and heeding no boundaries save those of loyalty and personal honor in his ravenous acquisition of power and status, Tony's the kind of guy who, if you gave him an inch, would take the whole ruler, and shove it into your throat for good measure. He's climbing the ladder straight to the top, and God help anyone unlucky enough to be in his way.
Make no mistake, Tony's a bad man. But, corrupt though he may be, he's not soulless -- he adores his kid sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in her debut role), and is determined to the point of psychosis to protect her innocence even as he himself sinks deeper and deeper into a moral abyss. Tony isn't looking for redemption; he knows he's damned. But he'll stop at nothing to keep the one person he truly loves from becoming tainted. Ironically, it's that essentially virtuous core -- the ability to discern and treasure purity even if he is incapable of it himself -- that becomes Tony's fatal flaw. An outsider to "decent" society but too honorable to exist peaceably alongside true sociopaths, he's ultimately destroyed by the very world he seeks to possess.
The other woman in his life is Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), the beautiful girlfriend of his boss, Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), an aging, mid-level coke baron who lives by the motto "don't get high on your own supply" and is as cautious as Tony is reckless. The moment Tony first sees Elvira, his eyes light up in recognition and naked want, and we know two things: one, that she's not going to be Frank's girlfriend for much longer; and two, Frank's future ain't looking too good.
Tony's a man fueled by desire. Having spent his life climbing his way out of the gutter, climbing is now all he knows how to do. Everything else, including his ability to enjoy the things he acquires, has been stripped away from his character, leaving only that consuming, unquenchable thirst. This single-minded intensity serves him well when he's on his way up, giving him the focus and determination he needs to vanquish his foes and impress all the right people, but like a racecar with no brakes, even after he's crossed the finish line, he can't slow down. He has to have it all, no matter what -- or who -- it costs him.
Nothing exceeds like excess.
Scarface is a remake of the 1932 film by Howard Hawks, written by Ben Hecht, and starring Paul Muni as the psychopathic gangster. That film, too, created quite the stir in its day; Hawks was forced to tone down and reshoot scenes in order to make it suitable for release, but the watered-down result was still yanked from theaters and mothballed after a brief run. De Palma and Stone (who was nursing his own "yeyo" addiction during the making of the film), in updating the film for the 1980s, up the ante considerably with such unforgettably brutal scenes as a chainsaw dismemberment and a finale involving enough firepower to supply a small army. The filmmakers follow the original film's themes and plot structure generally though not slavishly, while jacking up the intensity level in order to shock modern audiences the same way Hawks did in the '30s.
Upon its release, critics tore into Scarface, denouncing its extreme violence, over-the-top depiction of cocaine culture, and record-breaking deployment (206 instances, by one count) of the f-word. (In fact, the film was originally slapped with an X rating, even after three rounds of edits. De Palma eventually convinced the ratings board to give him the R rating when he brought in experts to attest that the film was in fact a realistic depiction of the cocaine industry.) Pauline Kael called Scarface "a long, druggy spectacle -- manic yet exhausted." Audiences, too, were largely turned off: the film made less at the box office that year than Jaws 3-D.
Yet Scarface, far from fading into obscurity, has endured to become one of the most influential and iconic films of the last twenty years. Much of the credit for that success goes to Al Pacino, whose larger-than-life portrayal of Tony Montana combines the blunt force of a runaway freight train and the psychological layers of Macbeth. Pacino's cocky drug lord comes on like a lean, mean bantam rooster, strutting and colorful, almost clownish but for the savage intensity of his hooded eyes and a stark, no-nonsense bravado that stems, not from the need to dominate, but from the willingness to take on whatever the world throws at him. Never the biggest or most physically imposing guy in the room, Tony's magnetic power lies in his total honesty and the courage of a man who seems to have nothing to lose, even when he in fact has everything to lose.
Another major element in the film's lasting appeal is its fundamental theme; beneath the mounds of cocaine and buckets of blood, Scarface is a quintessential fable of the American Dream, the classic capitalist success story reduced to its essence, then blown up to an operatic scale. Tony Montana fascinates us because on some deep, id-dominated level, we would like to be Tony, to unleash ourselves upon the world without regard to boundaries or the rule of law. Tony gains our sympathy because we recognize our most basic impulses in him.
Michelle Pfeiffer, as Tony's jaded, coke-addled wife, is a revelation. Who would have thought that this neophyte actress, fresh from Grease 2 and seemingly headed for a career as a B-movie bimbo, would hold her own against a veteran like Pacino? Yet Pfeiffer conveys the cool, utterly confident presence of a screen goddess, the living, breathing embodiment of the sexy, shiny brand of success Tony so desperately covets. It's an amazing performance that transcends what might otherwise have been a standard "gangster moll" role.
This 20th Anniversary DVD release is a vast improvement over the unfortunate 1998 "Collector's Edition" disc, which suffered from a muddy, ugly transfer riddled with defects. While the print does show its age, and is noticeably grainy, the picture is surprisingly clean and vivid, with deep, flawless blacks and surfaces that gleam nearly as brightly as they did on the big screen in 1983. It's probably as close to a definitive transfer of this film as we're likely to get.
The audio, offered in a full array of flavors from DTS ES to Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0, is absolute perfection. Scarface is a sonically lively movie, and that sound is represented here as well as anyone could ask for, with reference-level clarity and a surprisingly active sound field. This film demands to be heard at high volume.
While I don't often take note of DVD menus, I found the menu design of this set oddly compelling. Consisting of high-contrast black and white still images and full-color, full-motion clips from the film, elements of which are constantly shifting and interweaving over a sinuous, pulsing electronic score, it's a little cheesy but quite effective in communicating the tone of the movie. I hate to admit it, but I actually found myself just watching the menu animation cycle over and over, which is a first for this dedicated hater of animated menus. Very nice.
Rounding out an already excellent two-disc package is a terrific set of extra features. First up: three mini-documentaries, directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Although I would have loved an audio commentary, these documentaries are quite comprehensive. "Scarface: The Rebirth" (10 minutes) gives us a rundown of the film's conception and pre-production, with De Palma, Stone, Pacino, and producer Martin Bregman talking about the inspirations and false starts on the way to getting Scarface off the ground. "Scarface: Acting" (15 minutes) focuses on the casting process and how Steven Bauer and Michelle Pfeiffer came onboard, as well as shedding light on Pacino's acting choices and preparation (for instance, he asked Spanish speaking cinematographer John Alonzo to speak to Pacino only in Spanish during the entire shoot). "Scarface: Creating" (30 minutes) dives headlong into the production process, including location choices (an angry response by Cuban Floridians forced the filmmakers to shoot primarily in Los Angeles), Giorgio Moroder's brooding electronic score, special effects, and many fascinating anecdotes from filming to post-production and release. Steven Spielberg fans will be interested to learn that the director, visiting the set, ended up "directing" one shot in the film (I won't give it away, but it's an amusingly throwaway shot).
There are fifteen deleted scenes, totaling about 22 minutes of extra footage. These aren't especially significant clips -- mostly bits trimmed from the final versions of the scenes, presented in rough form -- but they offer some interesting character development moments. Also included is an amusing featurette, "Scarface: The TV Version" (3 minutes), which briefly discusses the no doubt formidable task of converting this ultraviolent, profane film into a network-friendly form, including several side-by-side comparisons. (Example: "This town's like a great big p*ssy just waiting to get f*cked" becomes "This town's like a great big chicken just waiting to get plucked.") As clunky as these re-edits are, I'm frankly surprised that they were able to come up with a TV version longer than 20 minutes, with a new storyline in which Tony Montana buys a car, then goes home and takes a bath, The End.
One reason for the life after box-office death that Scarface has enjoyed is the film's staggering popularity in the hip-hop community, which idolizes Tony Montana as a role model. Universal has picked up on that and is playing it to the hilt, even advertising the film on their site as a "hip hop classic." So, last but not least, we get "Def Jam Presents: Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic" (30 minutes), consisting of interviews with such rap artists as Snoop Dogg and Nas, who discuss the impact of Scarface on their lives and music. It's a fairly illuminating documentary that held some surprises for me, as a casual listener at best of hip-hop. I had no idea Scarface was such a revered film in the rap world (much the same way as The Godfather was not only a favorite of mobsters, but actually served as a model for their lifestyle), but in retrospect it seems like a no-brainer; Scarface fits right in with the romantic anti-hero image and bling-bling materialism of the gangsta ethos.
Of course, the film's somewhat mocking treatment of Tony's cluelessly tacky, nouveau riche sensibilities appears to be lost on these rappers. Still, there's no denying the persuasive power of Tony Montana as an inner-city icon, embodying as he does the dark side of the American Dream that is often the only path available to the disadvantaged. It's an integral, if unfortunate, part of the immigrant and minority experience.
Can't you stop saying "f*ck" all the time?
Scarface's detractors most often point to the film's many extravagant stylistic flourishes -- from Pacino's no-holds-barred performance to the high-gloss '80s nightmare of the wardrobe and production design -- as evidence of the film's implausibility and cartoonish excess. But as De Palma has stated in interviews, most of the people who jeered at the outrageous cocaine usage depicted in the film (epitomized by Tony at one point burying his face in a huge mound of cocaine and emerging with a "got coke?" smudge covering his nose) had never actually experienced that lifestyle, and didn't realize that things like this really did go on during the zenith of cocaine culture in the '70s and '80s.
And if Scarface comes off as grandiose and excessive...well, it's because its drug-soaked milieu is itself grandiose and excessive. The film exists almost entirely on its sleek surface level; at a pivotal moment, a blimp hovers above Tony, flashing "THE WORLD IS YOURS" -- symbolism doesn't get much more literal than that. At its root, this is a story of a small man who dreamed big, and who was ruthless and cunning enough to make those dreams a reality, to impose his vision upon the world, if only for a little while. Scarface reflects that sensibility in its every aspect, from its performances to its set designs to the relentless, foreboding disco score. It goes to eleven because Tony is stuck at eleven, and his is a potent and seductive vision (as anyone who has played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City can attest). If, ultimately, the film unravels under the stress of its own relentless velocity, it comes by its disintegration honestly; in Tony's world, as with the film itself, the center cannot hold.
The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this, let me tell ya.
Scarface has weathered critical disdain and financial disappointment to emerge, two decades later, as a film for the ages, joining the Godfather saga and GoodFellas in the pantheon of great gangster flicks. While De Palma, Pacino et al. have made subtler, smarter, and more complex films, they've never topped the gleeful audacity, towering spectacle, and culture-defining impact of this gloriously garish wallow through the marvelous Land of Id.
The Court has no choice but to declare a hung jury -- since the jury was discovered to be a f*cking stoolie and hung from a f*cking helicopter. Nobody f*cks with Tony Montana. This court is f*cking adjourned, mang.
Review content copyright © 2003 Bryan Byun; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2003 Nominee
* Top 100 Films: #69
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 6.1 ES (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 170 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Scarface: The Rebirth
* Scarface: Acting
* Scarface: Creating
* Scarface: The TV Version
* Deleted Scenes
* Def Jam Presents: Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic
* Cast and Filmmakers
* Scarface DVD Official Site