“He loved the American Dream. With a vengeance”.
Brian DePalma’s gut-busting remake of Howard Hawks’ 1932 gangster melodrama, Scarface sets out to disgust, sicken and horrify the audience with a rampage of violence, bloodshed and carnage. It accomplishes this beyond debate.
Chicago is now Miami, beer is now cocaine, and Tony Camonte, the Italian hood, is now Tony Montana, a sleazebag Cuban refugee who floats in with the other 125,000 “Marielitos” who poured into Florida in May 1980 when Castro turned his slaves free.
Although the film is careful to point out that not all Cubans are pimps, killers, racketeers, and social leeches, it also points out that 25,000 of the 1980 refugees had criminal records. This is the story of one of them.
Like many freeloaders who arrived with him, demanding political freedom and civil rights and giving nothing in return, Tony Montana throws himself on the mercy of the immigration officials, then carves up what’s left of a troubled America with a switchblade.
The violence in Scarface begins immediately, with a riot in a detention centre where Tony knifes his first victim. It’s the beginning of a long and gruesome body count.
The murder pays for Tony’s green card and before long, this greasy hustler is making cocaine transactions while his best friend gets chained to a motel shower rod and has his arms and legs buzzed off with a chainsaw (while the blood splashes all over Pacino’s face and the bathroom wallpaper).
The rest of Scarface, which runs to almost three hours, features more of the same.
It doesn’t take long for Tony to get a taste of the high life – $500 suits, vintage champagne, silver Porsches, blondes, and a Miami mansion that seems to have been interior decorated by Sabu the Elephant Boy.
Tony’s goal is “to get what’s coming to me . . . The world, and everything in it”, and he’s learned quickly the secret of the American dream – that money equals power, and drugs make money.
Tony corrupts his kid sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who adores him; he negotiates major drug deals in Colombia; muscles in on his own boss’s connections (Robert Loggia is marvellous as the coke Tsar who addicts half of Florida from his Mercedes-Benz dealership); falls for the gang lord’s sultry gun moll (Michelle Pfeiffer, looking like a 1940s Lizabeth Scott); and ends up with a tax-evasion charge he must get out of by massacring what looks like most of the Gulf Coast.
Tony machine-guns everyone who gets in his way, and by the time he finally comes to his own grisly and predictable end, he’s running a cocaine empire that takes in $100 billion a year (and has still never heard of Brooks Brothers).
Scarface provides one of the most nihilistic portraits of America ever seen on film. Not only are the Cuban gangsters reprehensible, but they are surrounded by crime on every level of social stratification: narcotics agents who protect drug imports with everything from money to first-class airline tickets, bankers who launder illegal money, cops who dig into the profits, lawyers who fix drug busts through connections that lead all the way to Washington . . .
One fascinating shot reveals Loggia (the drug king who Pacino bumps off) framed by personally autographed photos of everyone from Bobby Kennedy to Richard Nixon.
The message here is that the whole world is corrupt, everybody has a price, and a sane and honest citizen hasn’t got a chance. It’s probably the worst public-relations black eye ever given to the city of Miami.
Painted in garish, peeling pink, the city looks like a cesspool, and so many hotel, discos and restaurants get riddled with machine-gun fire that the safest thing to do in Miami is probably to stay in your room and watch television!
To be fair, Scarface does not condone or glamorise cocaine or crime.
The people are so scummy that when Tony finally gets ripped apart by a thousand bullets and plunges into his swimming pool there is no feeling of sadness or sense of loss.
The paranoia, madness and wholesale massacre that dominate the final half-hour of the film are really almost laughable. The sight of Pacino, eyes rolling around in a junkie haze, his head almost obscured by a desk piled high with a mountain of cocaine, is comical.
His head falls into a mound of the stuff and he comes up looking like a clown, while the supporting cast from The Godfather moves in with enough artillery to wipe Beirut off the face of the globe.
It’s a sad thing to admit, but these days we’ve become so de-sensitised by movie violence, so anaesthetised by the sight of bullet-ridden corpses, that Scarface doesn’t seem any more repellent than any other movie (and a great deal less nauseating than any movie ever directed by Sam Peckinpah).
Yes, the violence is endless and the four-letter words take the place of English. The decadence and perversion drown everything in a viscous grunge, and when the movie is over, you feel mugged, debased, and like you’ve eaten a bad clam. It’s brilliant!
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
F Murray Abraham
Nick the Pig
Michael P Moran
Hector the Toad
Robert Hammer Cannerday