[6 September 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s amazing how something becomes embedded in the popular culture, especially something that probably has no legitimate reason to be there in the first place. After all, the item under discussion today began life as a critically derailed affront on the sensibilities of moviegoers everywhere. It was lambasted for its violence, its politics, its questionable casting decisions and performances, and its overall message of drug-fueled frenzied power struggle on the streets of Miami. It was considered a black eye, a too close to home comment on the recent Mariel boatlift, and a stinging over-generalized indictment of the majority of law abiding Cuban citizens and refugees. Oddly enough, some 30 years later, few remember the thousands that came to our shores from Castro’s Communist house cleaning, but few have forgotten the movie that immortalizes it… Scarface.
Ah Scarface, that subtle morality tale about crime not paying—at least, not always and definitely not in the end. Scarface, that supposed update of the Paul Muni ‘classic’ from the height of Hollywood’s original obsession with the crime genre. Scarface, the movie where a man gets a chainsaw to the head. Scarface, more F-bombs and blood splatter than in all of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese’s canon combined (okay , so that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration). With a gratuitously Grand Guignol script by future conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone and some minor Hitchcock homages by director Brian DePalma, the resulting epic has managed to shake its scandalous initial release to become a kind of blasphemous Bible in home video. Indeed, it’s apparently the Gospel for every wannabe thug and rap impresario in the scene.
It’s all so surreal. How a film about the meteoric kingpin rise and cocaine infused fall of a penniless prison assassin with a sister fetish turned into a lightning rod of revisionist cool is probably percolating in the brain of a thousand PhD candidates right now. Everyone, from sociologists to film historians are hoping to build their entire proto-pundit reputation on dissecting Tony Montana’s voodoo spell over society. It could be his animalistic machismo that both serves and subverts his goals. It could be the flash of easy money and pre-bling bravado. It may have something to do with the kind of crawl up from the ground level determinism of the character, the desire to use all means—hook and crook—to get what he believes is rightfully his. Maybe it’s just a really good movie. Maybe.
Or, it could just be the combination of acclaimed writing and amplified auteurism. Stone was, and even today remains, a solid scribe. He can put pen to thoughts both insightful and incendiary without making us shudder from the aftershock. His dialogue here, overdosing on memorable dismissals and curse-laden come-ons, should be mandatory reading for any action punchline pretender. From a wordsmith standpoint, it’s not hard to see why the film is so beloved. It’s the ‘80s update of ‘20s street slang sans the Bowery Boys backup. As for DePalma, he puts aside most of his Master of Suspense pretensions to give Tony and his cronies their own South Florida rhythms. While still playing into every media driven stereotype and situation imaginable, he sets the standard for a million Miami Vices to come.
The story, if you don’t know it by now, features Tony (a weirdly effective Al Pacino) coming to America as part of the boatlift. His criminal past is discovered and he is sent, along with pal Manny (Steven Bauer), to Freedom Town, nothing more than a tent city under the I-95 highway. There, a favor for a high profile friend lands them a green card and a chance at the American Dream. Eventually, they are recruited by this connection, drug and car dealer gangster Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) and his sinister sidekick Omar (F. Murray Abraham). Time passes, his street cred grows, and Tony tries to reconnect with his family, including naive sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). He also takes point on future imports from Bolivian cartel head Alejandro Sosa (Paul Schenar). Eventually, Tony is doublecrossed, he makes a power play, and ‘inherits’ Frank’s territory, along with his comely coke whore gal pal Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Naturally, things don’t end well for our hopped up little antihero, and like any tragedy, Tony wears his many fatal flaws just above his onion wrinkled hands. He’s all Id, all unbridled desire and dogged determination. If it wasn’t for a small impediment known as law enforcement, he’d be an Earthbound god. Instead, all of Scarface feels like the seven layer set-up to an incredibly sick joke, one to be played out in a baroque mansion and among a mound of coke and the spray of bullets and blood. With DePalma, nothing is ever small. Even the emotional scale here seems as inflated as the well timed blimp passing by Elvira’s bedroom window. Everything is elephantine, from the pratfalls to the payback.
As an actor, Pacino plays Montana with everything his questionable Cuban accent can muster. Some may buy his hokey Havana manner, but for the most part, this is a Jack Nicholson as a Guido hitman in Prizzi’s Honor kind of risk. There are parts that sound just right. At other instances, he’s a coño away from a hate crime. It’s a titanic turn, the kind of performance that makes or breaks an actor. In his case, Pacino used it as a pass for the next few years, floundering between projects before regaining (and then re-losing) his footing in the late ‘90s. Everyone else is excellent, from Abraham and Loggia to Bauer and Schenar. Even with little to work with outside outrageous ‘80s hair, Pfeiffer and Mastrantonio redeem their underwritten female fixtures.
But it’s the lingering mythology that makes up most of 2011’s Scarface sentiment. The new Blu-ray contains a multi-part dissection of the movie that makes the case for its original greatness (okay…) and its ongoing legacy. While some components are missing from the discussion (Pacino is a no show, and Schenar died of AIDS a couple of decades ago), the majority make the case for Tony Montana’s place among iconic criminals. Even more interesting is the decision to include a DVD of the original Scarface for a kind of kooky compare and contrast. There are similar beats, but for the most part, Muni and company can’t compare to the amped up urban throb of this splatter-shed ‘remake.’
The most important thing to remember about Scarface, however, is how wholly entertaining it is. From the hyperactive acting to the messy probity play going on, nothing stays beneath the surface. Everything is out, loud, and damn proud of its perversity. Yes, it’s sadistic and brutal but it’s also a mere shadow of what really happened in the streets of South Florida during the Reagan era. Sometimes, staying power can be measured in meaningful illustrations. Scarface may now be a symbol for a certain shortsighted get rich or die tryin’ temperament, but it stands as a slick popcorn puree of bootstrap Americana laced with lots of liquid WTF? It shouldn’t be a cultural marker, but it is. In fact, that’s a perfect way to describe the movie. It shouldn’t be a lot of things, and yet, it is. Joyfully, it is.