Dec. 25, 2009
Scarface (1983)
Grade: 51/100

Director: Brian De Palma
Stars: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer

What it's about. Loosely based on the Paul Muni Scarface from the early 1930s, a film that no one outside of avid classic movie fans have ever seen (and is measurably better than the present remake).

Here, Scarface (whose actual name is Tony) is a hardened criminal exported by Cuba during the 1980 Mariel harbor boat lift. Tony (Al Pacino) has a trigger temper, enormous criminal ambitions, a foul mouth, and a willingness to kill men (but not women or children, since he has his standards).

Tony's right hand man is Manny (Steven Bauer), a loyal and surprisingly easy-going Cuban. Tony makes his name on the street by killing a former Casto agent. Saving a disastrous cocaine deal sets Tony up with local kingpin Robert Loggia. Now flush with cash, Tony visits his disapproving mother (Miriam Colon), who ekes out a lower middle class existence with her hottie twenty-ish daughter Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Gina and Manny begin a romance, which they must hide from Tony, who becomes obsessed with preserving Gina's chastity.

Tony breaks with Loggia and steals his mistress, the beautiful but ill-humored Michelle Pfeiffer. Tony becomes fabulously wealthy importing cocaine direct from Columbian grower Sosa (Paul Shenar), but he grows unstable, perhaps due to all the coke he's always snorting.

How others will see it. Scarface has a spectacular number of user ratings for a movie made a decade before the internet age began: 136,098. It also has an extremely high user rating of 8.2. Males under 18 award it a whopping 8.8, but not everyone adores the movie, since women over 45 give it only a 5.3.

Scarface is a violent movie with an expletive-laden script and a typically over-the-top performance from the always charismatic Al Pacino. Clearly, men, and especially young men, are impressed by Pacino's machismo. Hopefully, they also see how ridiculous he is, but find it entertaining nonetheless, perhaps almost in the same way they enjoy the Troll series of "B" horror movies.

Meanwhile, older women aren't too keen on an anti-hero who steals their boss's mistress, plies her with a mountain of coke, and treat her like trailer trash. And Pfeiffer comes off better than anyone else, since she is the only major cast member to survive the movie. There is nothing redeeming about Pacino's character, since even when he tries to do good (his sister, for example) his homicidal, hot-headed nature takes hold.

How I felt about it. For a movie ranked #161 in the Top 250, Scarface is a disappointment. Pacino's character and acting is exaggerated, in the manner of Dog Day Afternoon or Scent of a Woman. He's much more understated in Carlito's Way, a better gangster vehicle, and better still, of course, in the first two Godfather films, where his character's passion has a purpose other than mere self-aggrandizement.

But then, those movies weren't written by Oliver Stone, whose style, like that of director Brian De Palma, is catered to making films that are the topic of young male conversations. It doesn't matter how many times you watch Scarface, it still doesn't make much sense. Why does Pacino pursue Pfeiffer, who tries her best to detest him, when there are plenty of women out there who are actually nice, don't abuse drugs, and aren't the boss's mistress. How does Gina show up at the disco, pawed over like an escort, when the last time we saw her she was the ideal daughter? Why does chronic womanizer Manny choose the one woman that he knows will get him in trouble with Tony? Why does Tony's mother go to him, and not the police, when Gina is missing? After all, she wants nothing to do with Tony, and doesn't want Gina to have anything to do with him, either. Why is Tony willing to murder an innocent diplomat, but not his wife and two children? Why was it necessary for Gina's character to die? Most of all, why does Tony go nuts once he is on top?

One last comment: nobody builds a round hot tub in their bedroom.