Catching the Classics: Scarface

Scarface PosterSince 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list grows regularly and is currently more than 1800 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.

It’s hard to be certain when I first heard about Scarface. High school seems likely. Its excess of violence and its sense of style would have appealed to a lot of my fellow students. It took me a while to catch it, not for any particular reason, but simply difficulty in tracking down a cheap copy — you can be assured I knew even from early on that this was not a film to trust to TBS’s editors. Also, at nearly three hours in length, it’s a film that requires a significant time commitment, so there was that factor as well. But it was one I had to get my hands on eventually, if only to see how a film can garner Golden Globe nominations and, at the same time, a Razzie nomination.

I will assume most readers are at least partially aware of the plot of Scarface (for those who aren’t: guy becomes drug kingpin), and so I won’t dwell on it overmuch except to say that perhaps it does run just a tad too long. But it flows reasonably naturally, showing the progression of Tony Montana from small time thug to kingpin of the Miami cocaine scene. Montana is a virtually amoral character, willing to cross anybody in the pursuit of his ambition, which as he says is “the world, and everything in it”.

If you aren’t going to have a likeable protagonist, it is vitally important that you have an interesting one. With Al Pacino in the role, Tony Montana is exactly that. He sometimes seems a bit of a dullard, not quite grasping that his actions have consequences, but he is full of witticisms. He is alternately funny and repulsive as his relationships with those around him become warped by drugs — both from his business and from his own addiction. It’s difficult to ever feel sympathy for him, as he is an abusive jackass who brings everything on himself, but he is nevertheless darkly charismatic as he rages against the world. The supporting characters are a few echelons down in charisma (dark or otherwise), but they serve the film well by giving the character of Tony Montana realistic foils to play off of.

The film’s reception has been mixed since its release, and this has always been something of a puzzlement to me. Having watched the film, I can finally understand why. I don’t put a lot of stock in the Razzies, but I can see their point in nominating Brian de Palma for worst director. Most of the film is done quite well; in fact, I would say there are no out-and-out flaws with the film, and many scenes are terrific from a directing standpoint. But when there’s a scene that fails, it fails hard. Of particular note are the scenes where Tony is angered by guys hitting on his kid sister, of which there are a few and which all play out the same way. The camera shows the sister, then it does a close-up on Pacino’s eyes while a “dramatic” chord plays. It doesn’t feel like the decision of a director on a major theatrical feature; it feels like something out of a Lifetime Movie of the Week. It could only be cheesier if the specific sound snippet were DUN DUN DUN!

Fortunately, moments like that are relatively rare. Most of the film is high quality, and Pacino’s performance is magnetic. It’s not a perfect film, and one has to roll with the cheesiness in places, but it’s certainly a film worthy of remaining in the public eye for the last thirty years.

Rating: 4 Stars

Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.

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20 thoughts on “Catching the Classics: Scarface

  1. Solid review. I’m a fan of Scarface. Like you said it isn’t flawless and it’s rough around the edges, but it’s wildly entertaining and Tony Montana is a very memorable character.

    • I haven’t seen the original yet, myself. It’s on my list of films to get to, though.

      What do you think (although I can guess) about the news that David Yates is making another version of Scarface for Universal? This time he’ll apparently be part of the Mexican drug cartel…

  2. Good review Morgan. Maybe a tad bit too long for my own good, but still relatively iconic in its own way. However, I can see where most of the hate for this movie comes from. The idea of a really, really Italian actor like Al Pacino playing a Cuban? Really!?!? Oh well, somehow, in my eyes, it worked out.

    • Ah, yes, Hollywood and its approach to ethnicity isn’t just turning a blind eye to it, but actively going against it in a lot of ways. At least his supporting cast included some Cubans, and Pacino reportedly worked very hard with them to get his accent correct.

  3. Horrible film. A big disappointment for me. A lot of useless violence and profanity with no real takeaway for the viewer at the end. Maybe for fans of violent video games but certainly not for me. After watching it I was inspired to immediately go to Amazon to leave a one star review. Not often that I get that motivated to review something.

    • I can see how the excess profanity could be a big turn-off, especially since it does seem to be rather more than necessary. The violence, though… while I understand not liking it, I don’t think I could call that unnecessary in this film. The whole thing is about how he’s out of control, violence is part and parcel with it.

      I concede there’s not much of a takeaway for the viewer, though. As moral lessons go, “don’t be a drug dealer who gets so doped up he can’t see the consequences of his own actions” is a little on the specific side for most people.

      • I concede there’s not much of a takeaway for the viewer, though. As moral lessons go, “don’t be a drug dealer who gets so doped up he can’t see the consequences of his own actions” is a little on the specific side for most people.

        I don’t even know if that’s even necessarily a takeaway for most people, though. The Scarface fans usually paint Tony Montana as a tragic hero (witness all the Tony Montana iconography, including one that featured wrestling great Eddie Guerrero), and the gunfight at the end is seen as a heroic last stand. Like, he made it to the top: what better way to go out than in an awesome hail of fire! (Where, at various moments, you just don’t die.)

        Plus, there was also a video game version, which takes place after the movie. It turns out that Tony Montana survives! So… yeah. The real moral is “Be a drug dealer because you’ll get the money, the women, and you’ll be functionally immortal!”

      • I think there’s a distinction between “most people/Scarface fans” and “Tony Montana fans”. Yeah, there are a lot of people who picture Montana as a tragic hero, or someone to look up to, especially in gangsta mentality. But I think that’s a case of misaimed fandom, a situation that happens with a lot of villain protagonists. I don’t think it’s the majority of people though; I think most people are entertained by Tony but don’t want to be him. And the movie itself is definitely against him.

        I’m not going to count the video game. A video game made 20+ years later in the Grand Theft Auto era is just obviously going to be messed up in the head anyway.

  4. Good job CO. Well thought out.

    I think the main thing you missed by not seeing it for so long is cultural impact this film had. In its day it was probably one of the most quoted films in America. While I’m sure you heard that going on around you, without having seen it it surely didn’t mean that much to you (as I experience when people quote lines at me which I’m oblivious to… Seinfeld for example). But Scarface had a presence far beyond the actual film. It became a part of basic conversational literacy for a time, and even today you’ll hear some lines thrown around in casual conversation. I never knew it recieved a Razzie, nor would I have ever suspected it. Honestly, I’ve never heard anyone say anything critically bad about it before. I know plenty of people who dont like it, mostly because of the violence, but I dont think I’ve heard any film critics not loving it, but then again its been a while, and when this film came out, I was probably pretty coked up anyways. ;)

    • Nominated for a Razzie; didn’t win. Which it probably shouldn’t have, since another non-winning nominee was Jaws 3D. But yeah… the mixed reception was something I’d heard about for a few years before finally watching it. Of the big critics, I gather Leonard Maltin was one of its detractors.

      But yes, certainly a highly quoted film. I don’t think I’ve gone a single year since the movie came out without hearing “Say hello to my little friend!” at least once, and there are a lot of other quotable lines in it as well.

  5. To me, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. It’s over-the-top, bawdy, uncompromising, and just downright funny. I can do quotes from that film. It’s fucking incredible.

    “Please Tony, don’t kill me, don’t kill me”. “I ain’t gonna kill you, get off my feet!” “Oh thank you Tony, thank you”, “Manny, shoot this piece of shit!”

    “FUCK YOU MANG, WHO PUT THIS THING TOGETHER? ME, THAT WHO!!!!!”

  6. I don’t know that I’d call Tony Montana a “dullard” buddy… he’s clueless in some regards, but sharp as a knife in others, you know?

    Meanwhile, like Gelf said, a big part of this movie is the way it caught on. People LOVE this movie (myself included). It really was a conversational necessity growing up, there’s no doubt. You had to know the lines, be able to do a passable Montana, etc… if you had a Manny impersonation, too, then you were really onto something.

    This is a flick that gets massive “cheese” points… the synth scoring that you point out being part of it, Pacino’s scenery chewing being another. Yet at the same time, I think this is one of his best performances ever… it’s legitimately transformational, you’d barely know it was him if you compared this to say, Dog Day…

    Anyways, as always, glad you scratched this one of the list. Its one of my faves.

    • Yeah, I suppose being just a tad younger, I missed out on the conversational aspects… not a lot of Tony Montana imitations in front of the middle school, you know? :D

      But yes, Pacino is great. Very transformational.

  7. I am with the “not a fan” crowd. I guess my vision was colored since I’d seen “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” ahead of time, which are two unassailable classics of the crime drama genre. So I head this was a classic, too, and I was all set to see something of the same calibre.

    I walked away disappointed. Tony Montana was not only unsympathetic, he was also incredibly cartoony. Which I guess I could handle if it was shot like Quentin Tarantino would (a little tongue in cheek but with a lot of style). But the movie was so self-serious that the disconnect just sunk the entire venture for me.

    • Yeah, it’s not The Godfather, that’s for sure. The cartoony/serious contrast was part of my problem with the film as well. I still enjoyed it, but it’s not hard to see how someone else wouldn’t, especially if they were expecting something different.

  8. Nice film; solid take. I dig the character arc and the comment on making things happen regardless of industry. ;-)

    “The only thing in this world that gives orders… is balls. ”
    - Tony Montana [Pacino], Scarface(’83)

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