In the movie-brat mob-movie canon, Brian De Palma’s Scarface has always been the messy, unruly kid at the back of the class.
It lacks the anthropological detail of Scorsese, and the grandiose, this-is-America ambitions of Coppola.
What it does have is the kind of era-defining timeliness that comes along once in a generation. Want to understand the tasteless excess and relentless money-worship of the ’80s? Look no further than Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a man who embodies the period with uncanny precision.
Montana arrives in Miami fresh from jail in 1980. Identifying America as the place where his street-smarts and pig-headed courage can really take flight, he sets about taking over the Florida cocaine trade. And that’s about it plot-wise, Montana killing his way to the top like a coked-up Cuban Terminator, picking up a rival dealer’s trophy wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) along the way, before getting distracted by Freudian issues with sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).
You can guess the ending – if you can’t, look on the wall of any student dorm you happen to pass through. With such an iconic conclusion, you’re unlikely to be watching out of curiosity as to what actually happens – which is just as well, since many of Scarface’s pleasures lie in the journey, rather than the destination.
Chief among them is Pacino’s performance, which walks the line between ludicrously watchable and just ludicrous. Critics called it one-note, but that’s unfair – there’s two. He alternates between resentment at the “cock-a-roaches” he’s surrounded by and howling rage when they try one on him, moods turning on a dime. De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone’s teaming is at once Scarface’s greatest asset and Achilles heel.
De Palma’s a director who does depth rather like Michael Haneke does knockabout comedy, while Stone thinks subtlety’s fine provided it’s in bold, underlined and howled via megaphone. They take us for a gleefully trashy wallow in a gleefully trashy world – but does it add up to much?
Extras are mostly carry-overs from prior special editions, though new doc The Scarface Phenomenon does teach us you can buy Scarface slippers and that Eli Roth saw the film 56 times as a kid. Which may explain a lot.