Friday, November 25, 2016
(December 1983, U.S.)
It's almost impossible not to feel that my post for the original 1932 version of SCARFACE was merely something to just get through and get over with in order to work our way up to the real deal. Director Brian DePalma's remake of SCARFACE has become embedded in out popular culture since its release and an effective gangster film that has stood the test of time with its audience. It's a piece of work that has gone beyond the cinema and into extensive reference within video games, comic books and rap music (I don't even think THE GODFATHER ever went that far). And of course, when discussing SCARFACE, we must remember THE GODFATHER (the first two films) with great affection because it's surely the memory of Michael Corleone that weighs heavily on our minds as we watch the great Al Pacino take on the alternate role of Cuban gangster Tony Montana.
Beginning in the year 1980, we're informed of a small piece of American history (which, by the film's release and timeline, happened only three years prior). Fidel Castro, having opened the harbour in Mariel, Cuba, intended to let groups of his people reunite with their relatives already in the United States. This so-called "exodus" not only included relatives, but also the criminal scum that filled the jails of Cuba. A clip of Castro himself is quoted as saying, "We don't want them! We don't want them!" Following some authentic color footage of Mariel harbour in 1980, we're inside the refugee camp where Tony Montana (Pacino) is being interrogated by our local officials. Pay attention to the dialogue and you'll note a verbal homage to Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney (a couple of our best original and classic gangsters of the movies) as Tony enthusiastically declares his admiration for such men. Tony and his friend Manny (played by Steven Bauer) are granted green cards and released from the camp in exchange for assassinating a former Cuban government official and communist. Following a very short stint as dishwashers in a local grease trap, Tony and Manny are given the opportunity to take part in a cocaine purchase in the name of wealthy drug kingpin Frank Lopez (played by Robert Loggia) by his henchman Omar (played by F. Murray Abraham). The deal itself becomes disastrous when their third companion Angel is violently and very bloodily dismembered with a chainsaw. It's this scene, by the way, that almost got SCARFACE an X-rating at a time when NC-17 didn't exist yet. The moment itself it quite chilling and disturbing and I cannot even begin to imagine what it might have looked like had it been released completely uncut (geez!). Tony is rescued before he can be killed, and it's this initial victory over Frank's drug cartel enemies that promotes Tony and Manny to a higher level within this Miami criminal organization. Like the flying blimp says later in the film, "The World Is Yours". Tony knows it, believes it and will let nothing stand in the way of it.
Much like the original 1932, Tony's love interests and personal conflicts echo the black and white classic. Tony's attraction toward Franks wife Elvira (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) is immediate and he appears to have no reservations about moving in on the big boss' wife. Tony also loves and irrationally protects his younger sister Gina (played by newcomer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and is treated with disgust by his mother who cannot accept Tony's criminal life choice. Frank suspects not only Tony's moves on his wife, but also his aggressive ambition to make a name for himself in the Miami drug world despite Frank's warnings. An attempt on Tony's life by Frank's command fails, and Frank pays the price later when Tony has him killed. There is a rather unique moment that takes place in the film following Frank's death in which, rather than kill Frank's bodyguard Ernie right then and there, he offers him a job instead. This is part humorous because it's quite unexpected, but it also possibly suggests that Tony Montana has a heart...not a very big one, but one that can occasionally reveal itself if the moment is right. Tony marries Elvira and seems to love her, but inevitably becomes disgusted with her mundane existence in life, seeking to do no more than drink, take drugs and have sex (I personally have no problem with the third part!). The evidence of Tony's heart is also apparent when, in a fit of ranting and venting, he declares that he would love to be a father, but cannot because his junkie wife has polluted her body with too many drugs.
These brief moments of evidence depicting Tony's heart are almost worthless in our eyes because it's become very clear that he is "the bad guy". The bad guy, as is totally expected in any gangster film, enjoys the fruits of their lives as they rise to ultimate power. And like any rise to such power, there's the ultimate downfall that will inevitably follow. By the time Tony has not only made it obvious to his audience that he has an incestuous feeling toward his sister Gina, he's killed Manny for marrying her and is so hopped up on his own supply of cocaine that he can barely see the army of his drug cartel enemies entering his (supposedly) secure compound who have come to kill him. The film, however, uses this opportunity to feature Tony, if only for a brief moment, as a demigod. Tony's body is now so filled up with cocaine, that he not only sees himself as invincible against all his foes, but can physically repel his enemy's bullets for a time. This classic image of a snarling Al Pacino with his gun (or his "little friend" is definitive proof of such a powerful image of one's self...
Of course, as I said, as any such indestructible figure rises, he must fall, as well. Tony's last stand is striking and piercing to our eyes as senses as we watch his body get riddled with bullets and he's still standing! The blow that ends his life is slow, careful and effective as it's a simple and single bullet to the back of his head by an assassin sneaking up behind him that falls "the bad guy" to his end in the fountain below, the blood red water visually confirming his demise.
If ever there was the motion picture that has gained fan and critical appreciation and cult following years after its initial theatrical release, it's SCARFACE. Although a financial success, critics were very negative about it at the time, citing too much controversy over the film's violent, language and drug use. I find this puzzling because we know full well that this is a gangster film and we cannot expect its content to be sugar-coated in any way, especially by the early 1980s. Al Pacino brings his usual riveting performance capabilities to a character, though not at all uncommon to his past career, is a harder and edgier personality with a greater punch than the simply quiet and deadly youngest male of the Corleone family. SCARFACE is about true and deadly criminals and not about the traditional clichés of the gangster film, even a modern one. We are meant to genuinely be afraid of a monster like Tony Montana; afraid to cross him, afraid to say the wrong thing to him, and especially afraid to go anywhere near his beautiful sister. In the end, of course, "the bad guy" loses and crime surely doesn't pay. Well, it does pay for a while and we can't help but have some real decadent fun for a while in watching it do so. We can chalk that up to the streak of barbarism that lives inside us all, I suppose.
As I've often spoke of before, remakes (in general) don't hold much clout with me. Some are good, some are great, some even outweigh their original films. That small group of films that have fallen into the third category option have often been scary films such as INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978), DRACULA (1979), THE THING (1982) and THE FLY (1986). SCARFACE, however, is a different ballgame. Pacino and DePalma are not afraid to take things to the limits of drama, excess and ultra-violence to the point where a viewer such as myself concludes that SCARFACE is not only a worthy remake, but may just be the best damn remake ever made, in my opinion! What do you think?
Favorite line or dialogue:
Tony Montana: "What you lookin' at? You all a bunch of fuckin' assholes! You know why? You don't have the guts to be what you wanna be! You need people like me! You need people like me so you can point your fuckin' fingers and say, "That's the bad guy." So...what that make you? Good? You're not good! You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don't have that problem! Me, I always tell the truth, even when I lie! So say good night to the bad guy! Come on! The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you! Come on! Make way for the bad guy! There's a bad guy comin' through! Better get outta his way!"