Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 50 min.
Release Date: December 9th, 1983 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Brian De Palma Actors: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia, F. Murray Abraham, Paul Shenar, Harris Yulin, Angel Salazar
n May of 1980, Fidel Castro opened the harbor at Mariel, Cuba, with the apparent intention of letting some of his people join their relatives in the United States. But his true goal was to offload the dregs of society, as approximately 20% of the 125,000 refugees who arrived had criminal records. One of these men is Antonio Montana (Al Pacino), a construction worker, a former army man, a political prisoner, or a fan of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney; the only thing that is certain is that he spent time in jail. Although the officials that brusquely interrogate him for processing don’t believe a word he says, they send him along to the riot-filled, barb-wire-walled, shanty dwelling dubbed “Freedom Town.”
One month later, before heading off to Miami with a new green card, Tony does a favor for a friend of a friend – by stabbing to death a true political refugee during a riot. Although Tony and his pal Manny Ribera (Steven Bauer) do eventually acquire jobs as dishwashers for a hot dog stand, the lure of bigger payoffs finds them mixed up with Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham), who sends them to Cuban cocaine dealer Hector (Al Israel) for a simple exchange. But it’s just the first of many mistakes that end in death and mayhem.
In fact, it’s the setup for a particularly nerve-wracking, explicitly bloodthirsty scene that would become not only a signature, defining moment for the movie, but also a sequence that puts “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” to shame. And it’s the start of Montana’s descent into a dangerous yet seductive world of drugs, women, violence, and greed. Although he starts with nothing, his refusal to be intimidated and his commitment to attaining a specific status – and the type of respect that only comes from sizable wealth and fear – allow him to be a potent, thoroughly entertaining antihero. Streetwise and confident, he reflects many of the qualities of the iconic characters that populate the realms of Scorsese, Coppola, Polanski, and Friedkin. Like a Shakespearean tragedy soaked in modernized bloodshed, Tony’s destination is a mindset wherein loyalty (which is broadly defined here) is unachievable and paranoia is the only constant companion.
Writer Oliver Stone and director Brian De Palma also put plenty of manifestations of temptation in front of Montana’s shaky path, including an ostensibly benevolent mentor (Robert Loggia) and a blonde vixen (Michelle Pfeiffer), who unsuccessfully coach him in the two rules of drug dealing: never underestimate the other guy’s greed, and never get high on your own supply. The third rule – not to mess with the boss’ girl – generates a power struggle, an arduous attempt at seduction, and a battle of the sexes in which everyone is sure to get hurt. On Tony’s rise to the top – and to utter isolation – collateral damage is inevitable. Now that De Palma is working from another filmmaker’s script, he’s able to focus on storytelling, constructing an engaging narrative, and cinematic contrasts (both with visual motifs and the popular gangster code of honor, which dictates moral contradictions) – though some of the dialogue, editing, drawn-out shots, and musical cues are too unsubtle to be masterfully artistic.
Thanks to the epic runtime, the script also makes time for comedic lessons in love, commentary on racism and corruption and various forms of success, and intermittently moving opportunities for familial conflict (complete with disparagement and bad influences) – all told through the alternating lenses of pseudo-documentarian snippets and music-saturated melodrama. In the end, though it’s a detailed character study (with a striking performance by Pacino) and a poignant tragedy (with a bit of a twisted romance), intent on brushing past historical elements (the film was originally intended to be a remake of the 1932 picture of the same name by Howard Hawks) while exposing the darkest side of the American Dream, “Scarface” will primarily be remembered as a machinegun-soaked actioner of tough talk, “The Godfather”-type betrayals and retribution, and mountains of cocaine. Plus, it boasts a spectacularly memorable, explosive finale – even if it’s entirely predictable.
– Mike Massie