Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983)

26Jun11

Al Pacino (Tony Montana), Michelle Pfeiffer (Elvira Hancock), Steven Bauer (Manny Ribera). Screenplay by Oliver Stone. Rating: 18. Running time: 170 minutes.

You may notice early on in Scarface that the film pans out like a Grand Theft Auto game: we begin with the obligatory scene setters, introducing us to our main character who so obviously has a dodgy past. Then, before we know it, he’s being given criminal missions and executing them with an attitude. Add in the vulgar language, the extensive driving around in convertibles, the women treated as sex objects and the drugs and guns cropping up all over the place, and you truly feel like you’re watching a modern video game. GTA3 even stole its soundtrack from Scarface, for Christ’s sake.

That the world we are given here is so nauseatingly stupid, inhabited solely by men who think happiness lies in wealth and unpunished law-breaking (Plato would be turning in his grave, Thrasymachus jumping for joy) is of course not a good reason to protest. GoodFellas, after all, takes a similar approach, and that’s one of the greatest cinematic achievements we have. The problem is rather that De Palma filmed this ‘story’ (which the less generous might be inclined to call ‘a loosely and poorly tied together collage of crime and machismo’) so cheaply as to ensure any pleasures the film brings are only mocking in nature. It calls for the creation of a new term that conveys more forcefully the extent to which it is ‘tongue in cheek.’

And to its credit, at times the filmmaking seems conscious of this. Scarface is at its best when a heavily tanned Al Pacino with the bluntest of Cuban accents is telling a man holding a chainsaw by his throat to go fuck himself, and when he reacts to what must be a total of thirty men coming to kill him by getting out his machine gun and genuinely thinking ‘bring it.’ So much of the film is about a gangster being a gangster and so obviously being outrageously larger than life in his estimation of the size of his balls, that there’s often little to do but sit and laugh.

Yet, perhaps inevitably once the decision was made to stretch this oh-so repetitive testosterone-fest out to three hours in length, there are times when this self-consciousness slips away, and De Palma honestly seems to expect us to shorten the cool distance between us and his block-characters (that is, his coked-up murdering and money-making machines), and, somehow, genuinely empathise. How else to explain the younger sister sub-plot, Montana going nuts whenever a man lays a finger on her, ultimately leading to disastrous consequences playing out to the sound of crying, slow music and shots suggestive of a man phased for once by emotion and his own stupidity? These moments just don’t cohere with the film’s attitude. They’re poor and they’re manipulative, and you wonder if even the soppiest of suckers is going to feel anything in the midst of this game.

Because that’s ultimately what Scarface is, or at least should be. Nobody feels anything when a guy dies on GTA, and Rockstar certainly don’t try and modify that natural reaction. But De Palma seems to want to make some grandiose statements about the gangster life in the midst of so many scenes that work through their coldness and good humour. If he had stuck to the latter this still would not have been a good film, but it would have been tolerable and thus remotely worthy of its cult status. But as it is, Scarface is most definitely a bad film. I don’t think I could stand watching it again.

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