by MP Bartley
When anyone decides to make a list of the great gangster films, it's always predictable who will top the list. More than likely it'll be one of the first two 'Godfathers', followed by 'Once Upon A Time In America' and then perhaps propped up by 'The Untouchables' or 'Goodfellas'. Brian De Palma's 'Scarface' is one that never threatens to hit the top spot, and do you know why? Because he's just not classy enough.When Tony Montana (Al Pacino) arrives on the shores of Miami with best friend Mani (Steven Bauer) from Cuba, he's shipped out to a holding bay. Through the use of corruption, vicious murder and a convenient riot, they soon find themselves on the outside and working for Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), a crime boss in Miami. But Tony wants more: he wants money and power. He wants Lopez's empire and girlfriend Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). He wants his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) to be touched by no other man. He wants the world and everything in it.
This being a De Palma film, we know from the start that subtlety is not going to be a word used much during this review. Particularly as 'Scarface' is set, and made, during the 80's probably the least subtle decade ever. So huge synths and jazz solo's swamp the soundtrack, everything is brightly-lit and glistens like a supermarket, the suits are nylon, the drinks are right purple and the Hawaiian shirts are lurid to the extreme.
These are gangsters with no sense of poise, dignity or self-awareness. Tony isn't aware that he's the most noticeable person in Miami as he swaggers through clubs, spitting insults at anyone who looks twice at him. And a sniff of coke isn't enough for Tony if he can slide face-down a ski-slope of coke leaving a Father Christmas moustache in the process. And this is precisely what De Palma revels in, both glorifying this period of excess, but ultimately satirising it. When the rival gangs come for Tony at the end, they don't send an assassin, they send a mini-army as Tony holds them off with a grenade launcher "Say 'ello to my leetle fren!".
And when De Palma needs to show the violence, his Hitchcockian tendencies come bubbling to the surface again, mixed with his own desire for excess. There's the memorable climax where Pacino practically turns into the Hulk, the chainsaw/human interface and a bomb hit on a politicians car that bristles with angry tension.
And cruising throughout all this is Pacino, with the eyes of a dead shark. Actually, 'cruising' is the wrong work to describe Pacino's performance here, because that would infer some sense of control, and Pacino has none here. It's a wild, pumped-up, manic, excessive performance in a manic, excessive film. And nothing exceeds like Pacino here. Chewing on his words before spitting them out like tobacco in a Cuban drawl, it's a bulging, bristling, seething full-on Pacino. Even when he's not doing anything, you can feel the fury coursing through his still body.
He's absolutely, resolutely, unapologetically over the top, but he's also utterly riveting and you can't take your eyes off him for a second.
It's a wonder that anyone else manages to make an impression besides such a performance but Bauer is good and commendably human as Mani and Pfeiffer is also good as the icy moll in one of her first appearances. However, it's so much Pacino's film that other characters tend to suffer, like Mastrantonio's Gina who turns from sweet, admiring younger sister to coke-snorting whore in the space of a scene. And yes, there's just a hint of incest running through Tony's stares at Gina.
It's like Elvira says at one point, nothing exceeds like excess.It's no gangster classic, because it's totally and absolutely superficial. But with De Palma and Pacino practically exploding throughout the film, it's an irresitible and dynamic experience that pops and crackles with energy. An unlovely and tacky film it may be, but when you make a film about an unlovely and tacky man, what do you think you're going to get?
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originally posted: 10/27/04 02:16:26