Remakes are a sketchy business and, as the more discriminating among us often note, tend to arrive from the most unimaginative of filmmakers, who are merely looking to capitalize upon the consumption of a nostalgic audience. So, it’s with a post-dated sense of cynicism that Brian De Palma’s initially ill-received remake of Scarface (based upon the 1932 Howard Hawks film) revolves around the ultimate icon of conspicuous consumption: Tony Montana. For better or worse, this character was one of Al Pacino’s first scenery-snorting performances, which actually may have been the beginning of the end of an actor who was once noted for subtle turns of character. Decades later, Scarface has inspired an obscene amount of memorabilia and even a video game, upon which members of the bling-bling generation tap away with a total absence of irony. Within the past few years alone, Montana’s “Say hello to my leetle fren” line has been recycled by numerous films (including kiddie flicks), which is irrefutable evidence that this ultra-violent, hyper-stylized, decadently depraved movie isn’t leaving our cultural conversation at any point in the near future.
So yes, Scarface is a remake but in a similar sense to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds remake of the Enzo Castellari original. In both cases, the underlying sentiment remains the same, and the base storyline serves as a launching point. Whereas Castellari’s movie featured a group of American soldiers that helped pull off a coup against the Nazis in France during World War II, Tarantino’s movie went a hell of a lot further and even rewrote history. Similarly, the original Scarface was based upon the Chicagoan exploits of Al Capone and was something of a tribute to the gangsters who ran competing bootlegging operations during the Prohibition-era, but De Palma’s version re-imagines the story with a much greater exponential intensity. Working from Oliver Stone’s coke-addled script, Scarface begins with Fidel Castro’s little present to the United States; the dictator released his prison population, who hitched rides to Miami just in time to enjoy the cocaine explosion.
Undoubtedly, Scarface remains a guilty pleasure, thanks to Pacino’s flamboyant portrayal of the quick rise (and even faster fall) of a drug kingpin. Montana even arrived with his very own summation of the American Dream: “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.” Presumably, everything else — love, family, happiness — will effortlessly follow. Tony’s oldest and most-trusted friend, Manny Ray (Steven Bauer), is vaguely amused by this notion but is comfortable following the lead of the much savvier friend. For his part, Tony’s the big talker who isn’t afraid to knock someone off to get ahead, whether it has to do with scoring a green card or his first coke assignment from Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), who soon hires Tony as part of his crime syndicate. After catching sight of Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer), Tony spurs himself to gain more money and power by usurping Frank’s authority in revising their deal with international drug lord Sosa (Paul Shenar). Soon enough, Tony takes out Frank and rises to the top of the Miami cocaine underworld, and Tony captures his ultimate prize. More than anything else, however, Elvira marries Tony simply because too she’s too apathetic/bored/lazy to do otherwise. Then again, Tony’s marriage proposal was a bit too much like a business deal, so perhaps she was taking the better end of that bargain.
But once Tony gets the money, the power, and the girl, he’s got no bloody idea what to do with all of these things. He’s so goddamned unhappy and lethargic (all his energy consumed by paranoia) and doesn’t know what else to try except just keep consuming — even going so far to stick his face into a pile of cocaine and short as much as he possibly can. Tony finally becomes so insufferable that Elvira leaves him, and his paranoia increases to the point that, as we learn from Manny, twelve percent of their adjusted gross goes to so-called “countersurveillance”:
Tony: “That cable truck there. Since when does it take three days to rig a cable?”
Manny: “What, you’ve been watching it for three days?”
Tony: “The fuckin’ thing has been there for three days? What am I gonna do, not look at it?”
Just as Tony loses his last semblance of reality, the screenplay also abandons its logic. Stone and De Palma then force Tony into a rare display of humanity by having him refuse to kill the family of the journalist who exposed Sosa. Naturally, this decision makes no fucking sense — unless one considers that Elvira’s departure speech might have actually hit home with Tony — but he gives no indication of lucidity and continues to wonder why Elvira hasn’t called or returned to him. Tony’s uncharacteristic decision to spare lives serves only to further the plot by causing Sosa to issue assassination orders, which sets up the story for its nihilistic conclusion; and even though it’s the bloodbath of gunfire that everyone remembers about this movie, it just might have had something to do with Oliver Stone being coked out of his own mind when he wrote the new screenplay. At that point in the story, Tony Montana was long since dead (or perhaps undead) even though he refused to accepted or acknowledged his own infallibility. Hell, his very own body wouldn’t even acknowledge injury as Tony screams, “I take your bullets!” Furthermore, he probably didn’t have time to realize the fatal impact that sent him into his mansion’s indoor pool.
At first, I was quite looking forward to discussing this movie, for the mere thought of this movie conjures up the hyperrealism that De Palma translates into horrific visuals — the music, the colors, the chainsaws, and the cocaine. And one of the most dizzying scenes occurs when a couple of thugs attempt to assassinate Tony in a night club amidst multicolored spotlights and mirrored walls as a stand-up comedian amuses the club’s patrons. It’s truly surreal stuff, for certain, and numerous scenes produce a similar reaction, but when considering what occurs between these memorable moments, the movie feels rather hollow and collapses under its own weight. In all likelihood, De Palma was fully aware of the movie’s pretentious excess, but, like the self-aggrandizing Tony Montana, Scarface displays an over-confident swagger regarding its own decadence and presumes forgiveness as it drones on far too long at nearly with a running time of nearly three hours. Overall, Scarface convinces us of its own delusions of grandeur, but it’s a work that lacks focus based upon a screenplay that lacks momentum, and — somehow — the reprehensible Tony Montana has emerged as a mistaken cult hero.
Underneath the glitz, Scarface is nothing more than so many stories — The Great Gatsby and The Godfather are just a few — that illustrate the corruption of the American Dream. Of course, Tony Montana doesn’t quite bother with the foundation that Don Vito Corleone so painstakingly valued, which is family in the true supportive sense of the word. When Tony arrives in the U.S., he does not bother visiting his family but waits until he can afford the fancy suit and flash some cash in an attempt to impress them into forgiveness. His mother doesn’t want the money or Tony, who deserted them long ago; but Gina (Elizabeth Mastrantonio), on the other hand, is another story. Gina allows Tony to woo her affections and love with money and other ill-gotten gains. She is obsessed with Tony’s money, and Tony is obsessed with, well, all of her. So, it’s fitting that she and Tony go down together in the end.
Scarface isn’t a perfectly told story by any means (although Stone works in some nice touches with the notion that drug lords kept connections within the Reagan administration during the height of the “Just Say No” era), but it’s an epic display of exhilarating extravagance as displayed in the gaudiest of tones. As Elvira, who looks bored even when she’s dancing, states before sniffing a line, “Nothing exceeds like excess.” Then again, she often comes off as the wisest of the players, who responds to Tony’s “You know what capitalism is? Getting fucked!” with a calm response, “A true capitalist if ever I met one.” And as the laws of supply and demand would dictate, one who refuses to heed the “Never get high on your own supply” warning deserves whatever fate that De Palma and Stone’s viscerally depraved adventure would dictate. While Scarface isn’t nearly as successful as American Psycho in its condemnation of 1980s greed, De Palma and Stone certainly put on one hell of an over-the-top show that reflects its own excess and that of the titular character. And Tony Montana, ultimately, is just as disposable as the world he claimed for his own.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.