Smith’s Verdict: ***
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
“Scarface” is one of the more fascinating films I’ve watched recently. But I’m not entirely sure why that is. And for that matter, I’m not even sure whether or not I like it. On the one hand, it’s an ambitious, gloriously-shot, high-quality, riveting crime-drama epic that managed to keep me invested in the storyline, even with a running time of two hours and fifty minutes. On the other hand, it’s also an over-the-top, sometimes cartoonish-silly, inconsistently-acted “Godfather” wannabe with a lead character who is a blowhard that becomes an even bigger blowhard (oh gee, talk about a three-dimensional character arc) and is acted with an inconsistently interesting leading performance by Al Pacino.
And yes, I know that Pacino’s role of Tony Montana in “Scarface” is as iconic as they come—his exaggerated, over-the-top Cuban accent and mannerisms are usually imitated for fun, as is his most infamous line of dialogue, “Say hello to my little friend!” But let’s be honest—when I say “usually imitated for fun,” you know what I’m talking about. The Pacino performance is so over-the-top that it seems like he’s doing a parody of this type of macho gangster character who is a jerk from the start and an even bigger one the more powerful he becomes. Everything about this “character” seems overly exaggerated—it’s a live-action cartoon, to say the least. It’s a one-note performance that I don’t think was written that way, but Pacino just felt free to do whatever the hell he wanted to do with it. He’s a heavy scenery-chewer, he’s aggressive even when he should just calm down and think for a moment, and it doesn’t help that he snorts cocaine constantly through most of the film. I know that last part is supposed to emphasize why he behaves this way, but he was already aggressive at the start of the movie, and he gradually progresses to “asshole” status. Pacino’s character of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” is more of a character than Tony Montana, because at least he had something to start with before becoming what he had to be known for. (And I don’t think that’s the only “Godfather” comparison people would think back to when talking about this film and that.)
Maybe some of the reason for how over-the-top Pacino is in this role has to do with director Brian De Palma. Maybe De Palma wanted him to keep going on like this, to keep the intensity of the film alive, as the director always likes to keep things intense with his work. And indeed, his filmmaking here is not subtle at all, but it is interesting enough to keep me invested. I can also say the same for Oliver Stone’s screenplay, which is written a lot better than it’s being executed here. You can follow everything fine and you can see a genuine arc here. Maybe if a more low-key actor (not too low-key, just consistently intriguing enough) was cast as Tony Montana, “Scarface” would be a more credible film, so maybe that’s the thing—maybe Pacino was miscast.
But let’s be honest—Pacino’s hammy acting is the very reason why the performance stays in your mind. That’s why it’s iconic, that’s why people love to imitate him, and that’s why Tony is so memorable. And truth be told, when I mean to say that Pacino’s performance is “inconsistent,” I mean that Pacino does manage to pull off a few scenes credibly without having to go over-the-top (though, to be fair, I think the best of those are the ones that don’t feature him talking). So he has his good moments and his bad moments, which is why I call his performance “inconsistent.”
“Scarface” is about the rise and fall of this gangster Tony Montana, as it opens with him coming to America from Cuba along with his friend Manny (Steven Bauer) and ends with him high in power and paying the ultimate price that comes with the position. Tony and Manny come to Miami find themselves a job working for crime boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) after finding that washing dishes and flipping burgers at a diner doesn’t cut it for them. Their new job working for Frank requires shipping cocaine. But after a deal goes wrong, Tony and Manny make it out with the stash and money, which impresses Frank and causes him to make Tony one of his more reliable men to carry out missions for him.
Tony, of course, wants to try for something even bigger with his work. This means attempting to put himself higher than Frank and also taking Frank’s woman Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). And when he becomes a little too much for Frank, enough for him to send two henchmen to try and kill him (in one of the film’s best scenes), this is enough reason for Tony to kill Frank, take Elvira, and take control of all the cocaine in all of Miami. And surely enough, Tony Montana is risen to power and, wouldn’t you know it, unbearable enough to make enough enemies to try and gun him down.
I mentioned before that “Scarface” is impressive in how its story is told, and while it may come off as “standard” the way I’m describing it to you, it is sort of standard. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have room for surprises, and with De Palma’s direction, there are some neat, nifty twists to the usual stuff and an interesting look at the more violent aspects of the film. Indeed, the blood and gore keeps things interesting, especially in the ending which has Pacino at his most overzealous. Is it intended to be serious? Sure. But sometimes it almost seems like a parody of gangster-picture endings. Either way, it’s interesting to watch, if you can stomach it. Other fascinating scenes involve heavy amounts of violence, one of which involves a chainsaw that is used in an interrogation scene.
The supporting cast can’t get away untouched. Aside from Pacino’s acting, there are some performances that seem rather off. Michelle Pfeiffer is fine as Elvira (and has one particularly satisfying moment when she exclaims just how “boring” Tony has become), but Steven Bauer (the only Cuban actor playing a Cuban character, by the way) is bland, Robert Loggia isn’t the slightest bit convincing as the former Cuban drug lord, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as Tony’s sexy sister who is off-limits to anyone if Tony can help it, is awful with a never-convincing Cuban accent. That last one, I neglected to mention, has a weird relationship with Tony, or maybe it’s just how Tony is afraid to see her. I won’t go into detail about it, but let’s just say her final moment in this movie is beyond bizarre.
There is a fascination to the character of Tony Montana in that he just keeps going and going until he gets what he wants, and then when he ultimately does, he falls because he just doesn’t know when to stop. That, I believe, was the intention of the character, and possibly in how Pacino played him. When I think about it, in that respects, the performance sometimes works. I recommend “Scarface” because despite what I’ve said about Pacino, he is still fun to watch, and the film itself is beautifully shot and edited, even if it is over-the-top. It stuck with me, and it may stick with me even more after a second viewing.