Friday, September 26, 2014

Film Review: Scarface

"Scarface"  **** (out of ****)

Brian De Palma's "Scarface" (1983) is a scathing critique of the "American Dream" and America.

"Scarface" is a "loose" adaptation of a Howard Hawks 1932 gangster film of the same title starring Paul Muni as Tony Camonte with a career defining performance given by George Raft, as a coin flipping villain (the Batman character "Two-Face" was given this same trait because of this movie).

This time around our story takes place in 1980, when Cuban refugees arrive in Miami, Florida with Castro's permission. One of those refugees was Tony Montana (Al Pacino).

One of the first images we see on-screen is of what seems to be archival footage of Cubans coming to America. We see images of the American flag cut with shots of the refugees. And we are reminded, while we say America is "the home of the brave and the land of the free" it is also "the land of opportunity", the place where anyone can become rich and "make it". That's what Tony Montana wants now that he is in America. The "America Dream" to him represents money, power, a beautiful home and an attractive wife.

When Tony arrives in America there is an interrogation scene, to question him if he is a communist. Tony is asked how did he learn to speak English. He responds saying by watching movies. He mentions James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, two actors known for playing gangsters in movies. What does that say about the American image abroad? We are known for gangsters and violence. Tony didn't say he was watching Fred Astaire musicals and Shirley Temple movies.

Upon its initial release many "critics" focused their attention on the movie's violence, drug use, foul language and what was considered an "over the top" performance by Al Pacino. But, for as much as some may think the film is a commentary on criminals, drugs and violence, it is also as much a criticism of the American Dream and the United States' drug policy. At one point in the movie a character says, the United States spends hundreds of millions of dollars on a "war on drugs" yet America is the number one buyer of cocaine. Even though I support the "war on drug" and believe drugs should not be legal, I can see the hypocrisy of the situation.

What I enjoy most about "Scarface" is the screenplay by Oliver Stone. He throws in these social commentaries. When this movie was released Stone didn't have a significant body of work behind him but now, looking back on the movie, we can hear Stone's voice more prominently. The screenplay is sharp and observant. "Scarface" says a lot of important things about American culture.

In one scene Montana says he wants what is coming to him - the world and everything in it. This remark resembles the sentiment "greed is good" spoken in Stone's "Wall Street" (1987). Nothing is ever enough. We always need more. More money, more power, more fame, more food, more sex. The difference is one movie involved the corporate world and the other involves gangsters, but, is there really a difference? We would see these ideas appear again in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013). The politicians, the stock brokers, the bankers, they are all criminals but their practices are considered "legal". Not "moral" mind you, but "legal". They hide behind phony concepts like "capitalism" and "a free market" while stealing money from hard working people. When you are the person giving away your money, does it really matter what side of the law the other person is on? I'm reminded of something I was once told, when someone is pointing a gun at you, it doesn't matter if it is a crook or a cop at the other end of that gun, it is still scary.

You have the remember the times in which this movie was made, 1980s Ronald Reagan America. A time when "greed is good" was more than just a line from a movie, it was a way of living. It was a time of "trickle down" economics. Give the rich more money so they can invest and start businesses and their good fortune will "trickle down" to the rest of us. The system works best of course for those that begin the trickle. When you are an outsider in America, like Tony Montana, you quickly learn the rules. "In this country you gotta get the money and when you get the money, you get the power" observes Montana. Is he wrong?

Of course because it is a Hollywood movie, director Brian De Palma and writer Stone must give us a "crime doesn't pay" ending. The movie can't endorse violence and gangsters. So in order to offer a rebuttal we see Montana's mother and sister. They aren't rich. They work hard, struggle. This is how people are suppose to pursue the "American Dream". Isn't that what we have been told? It is all an even playing field. You have to struggle a little bit but eventually you'll become rich. Hard work pays off.

Over the years the movie has become associated with "hip hop culture". Most of the major rappers have embraced this movie and you can see why. How do people who are from the gutter, have no education, no talent to speak of (I think rappers have no talent) , achieve the American Dream? We all want to become rich and famous but when you feel trapped by society due to social and economic reasons, what are your options? Sure, things may not end well for Tony Montana, but, when he was at the top, the lifestyle sure seems tempting.

It shouldn't go without mentioning that Tony Montana is played by the same man who played Michael Corleone in "The Godfather" (1972). Both movies are about gangsters and present a twisted view of American life. In "The Godfather" there were traces of humanity in Michael. He was a war hero and was not involved in "the family business". In that same vein, Montana has to be presented as having some human qualities. He is shown as being loyal to his family. He loves his sister. And has a gangsters code of ethics - he won't kill women and children.

As I watched "Scarface", for the third time, I never felt Pacino's performance was "over the top". The character seemed like someone you might meet in real life. I don't think it is one of Pacino's greatest performances on par with his work in "The Godfather", "The Godfather Part II" (1974), "Serpico" (1973) or even "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975). But it is an interesting one in what it accomplishes. It walks a tight rope in an attempt to make us see ourselves in the character. The viewer has the same aspirations and can understand Montana's logic while at the same time it makes us judge him.

Director Brian De Palma is often accused (mostly by me) of putting "camp" in his movies. To one extent or another nearly every movie he has made has elements of it but "Scarface" feels more "grounded" to me. The movie stays on message, it is focused. De Palma gets the most out of all of his actors. Every performance is watchable. Michelle Pfeiffer broke out into the mainstream as Elvira, the woman Montana falls in love with. Robert Loggia plays Frank Lopez, a drug dealer who gives Montana his first break, Steven Bauer as his best friend, Manny and finally Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his kid sister Gina.

The most interesting of these relationships I feel is between Montana and Elvira. They are really two sides of the same coin. Elvira doesn't kill people but she wants the same things Montana wants, a comfortable life. A life filled with money and power. She pretends she is a "respectable" women, because she hides behind nice clothes and her beauty, but she is a drug addict. Both characters come from the same place place. How respectable could Elvira be living with men like Lopez and Montana?

The movie ends on a very violent note. For audiences in 1983 it was a bit too much. The 80s saw an emergence of violent slasher films which the public protested and look where it has lead us now. I won't explain how, but, everything ends badly and we are left with a hopeless message. The system doesn't work because people like Tony Montana still exist, but, some of them die. Still, this only makes room for new faces. 

So what's the final message of "Scarface"? Violence breeds more violence. The system is corrupt. And only the strong survive.