As promised in last week’s review of the original Scarface, here I am back with a review of the more popular remake. I’ll compare them a bit later in the review, but for now suffice to say that this is a more than worthy reworking of the original film. It updates several things, making this as shockingly amoral and violent to the eighties as the original film was to the thirties.
Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is a Cuban immigrant who quickly rises to the top of a Miami-based cocaine empire with his friend, Manny Ribera (Steve Bauer). He kills a guy for the mob in order to get out of prison, and then ditches his less than glamorous job working in a food truck to work for the mob full time. He gets in good with the boss Frank (Robert Loggia) but quickly perceives him as weak. At the proper moment, he strikes, takes over the business, and takes Frank’s girlfriend Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) along with him as well. With all his wealth, and continuing addiction to cocaine, he become paranoid and unstable. (Not that he was all that stable to begin with.) This paranoia is particularly concentrated on his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and when she marries Manny in secret, Tony’s anxiety engulfs him.
The story isn’t new; that was true even in the first movie. Most gangster films essentially have the same plot, gangster rises, gangster falls. It’s no different here. Pacino’s Tony Montana is pretty straightforward, he comes to America to make it rich. He pursues wealth relentlessly, but he has his principles. One of best scenes in the movie is when he refuses to kill a man whose wife and children are with him. This proves one of his many undoings, but it also is one of the many times you glimpse his character. You can’t necessarily count on him to do the right thing, but you can count on him to do what he thinks is the right thing. He rises the same way he falls, by believing in himself to a fault.
The key to this picture is that everything, and I mean everything, is done on an incredibly large scale. Though it concerns itself primarily with one man and his vices, the film is grandiose and epic. Clocking in at 170 minutes (just under three hours), it gives itself ample time to develop Tony’s story. Pacino’s over the top performance can hardly be called that; yes, he’s chewing scenery here, but in a movie that devotes itself to excess so wholeheartedly this type of performance fits in great. If he were more subtle, it would almost be a let down. The cinematography plays along as well, giving us many big sweeping shots of the huge mansions that Tony and the other characters inhabit. The production and costume design is gaudy to the extreme, full of terrible but expensive looking 80s fashions. Nothing in this movie can be called subtle, but it works.
The grandiosity is how this film one-ups the original. While I prefer the original for many reasons: it’s pretty old school, the x-motif is cool, and basically everyone is more likable in that film, this offers a lot more. That can be bad on some levels, but mostly it’s good. With more modern gangster films like Goodfellas and The Godfather clocking in around the three hour mark, it’s strange to see how understated they were back in the day. The original Scarface felt kind of rushed, but here we get plenty of room to spread out. Plus, there’s an interesting discrepancy between how much attention Tony gets and how much attention he is worth. He is a low life in both movies obviously, but in the 30s the movie treats him more like one. Here, he’s a tragic hero with a fatal flaw, doomed to self destruction on a grand stage in the midst of unbelievable wealth and power. The new film includes several scenes taken directly out of the first movie (I’m glad they included the “world is yours” thing), but it also updated where it needs to be. While I think I would technically have to say this one is better, I would also have to say I like them both equally.
In his review (linked at bottom), Roger Ebert says of Scarface “Just as a generation raised on “The Sopranos” may never understand how original “The Godfather” was, so “Scarface” has been absorbed into its imitators.” I think I’m suffering from that a bit. Scarface at once seems very original, mostly in style, but also timeless, a story that’s been told time and time again. That’s also part of its appeal for me I suppose, it’s new and old all at the same time.
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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