Scarface is a movie which really shouldn't have worked. It presents us with a swaggering, remorseless bastard of a human being who deals drugs for a living, is deprived of any moral conscience at all, has Al Pacino employing a ridiculous Cuban accent, and is liberally sprinkled with every swear word and expletive in the book. And yet, there's the audience at the very end cheering on Tony Montana as he tries to wipe out a gaggle of would-be assassins who were sent there to kill him.
Until you watch Scarface in sequence and in canon with some of the other popular and revered gangster flicks, you don't have any idea just how much of a black sheep it really is. Scarface is a morality tale about how crime doesn't pay, just like Goodfellas or Casino or The Godfather series. Other than that, most of the other popular gangster movies try to present some kind of moral ambiguity and develop the characters enough to understand who they are. Scarface is animated as hell, like a Warner Brothers cartoon pumped up on steroids and infected with ultraviolence and every form of anti-family stuff you can imagine. Scarface presents everything in as black and white a scenario as possible, and is so bent about the main characters being bad guys that it doesn't even bother to give us any background. It shows us a bunch of characters, and they happen to do things we objectively believe are bad. But we don't KNOW anything about them. Our first real scene in the movie is Tony Montana in US Customs getting checked out for entry into the United States. That's all the background we're ever going to get about him. Instead of being written as a nuanced character who we can understand and perhaps relate to, Tony Montana is a blank page, presented to us with the direction to fill out the entire page however we see fit. This means that Oliver Stone, who wrote Scarface, could create conflicts and throw in the resolutions as they were convenient to him, not to the plot or character.
Scarface is about a Cuban refugee named Tony Montana who comes to the States and becomes a big-time drug dealer. Although you would think Tony would have a few second thoughts upon seeing his first drug deal go south and his best friend get hacked to death with a chainsaw, we're dealing with Hollywood logic here, not real logic, and so Tony just keeps wandering into the world when he could have just ditched the stuff from that first botched deal and taken the first red eye out of Miami, screaming all the while. Eventually he takes over the entire Miami operation by offing his boss there after his boss, Frank, starts to fear the kind of power Tony is starting to build within his organization. Frank is right to be afraid of Tony, who does whatever he pleases, but Frank doesn't help his own cause much by being an idiot. Tony is also making google eyes at Frank's girlfriend, Elvira. Tony is in general a nutcase who rises to great success by stomping out everything in his path, no matter how close they were to him, and no matter how bad he has to be. Everyone familiar with Scarface knows the famous scene in the end where men sent by Tony's former business partner, Sosa, go in to kill him in one of the truly grand finales of all gangster flicks. But that comes about because of one earlier scene where Tony manages to suddenly find his moral compass again for a brief window.
The lack of development is severe and the audience is forced to wonder such questions as: Who is Elvira anyway, where did she come from, and why is she always in such a state of disinterest? How did Tony manage to get her to marry him if she simply doesn't care about much of anything, including Tony's affections? Where did Tony's rabid overprotection of his sister, Gina, come from? Hell, where's Tony's family after his original arrival from Cuba, anyway? Oliver Stone appears less and less a competent screenwriter as the years take their toll on his movie career, but this shows that he always had the potential to be really half-witted. You have to wonder if Stone was doing this movie to make the really obvious point or - Scarface having been released in 1983 - if the Reagan family fiends got to the production and it ended up being watered down.
If there's a movie on this planet which so perfectly captures everything about the 1980's, Scarface is the one. With the setting taking place in the time and place of Miami Vice, all those great old stereotypes about the Decade of Greed are all out in full force. Montana lusts after money and power and achieves them, and we see him getting them all through use of that great old device known as a "montage." Pastel suits are worn by almost every character, there are a couple of big party scenes in nightclubs, and the music is pretty much all synthesized new wave and techno.
You shouldn't let my complaining get you down over Scarface, though. For everything wrong with it - perhaps even BECAUSE of everything wrong with it - it's chock-full of scenes which are memorable and in many cases even riveting. Brian De Palma, who directed Scarface, is known for his photographic and visual prowess, but with Scarface he backs off and takes the basic point-and-click approach to directing through the entire movie. I've said in the past that the job of a director is to take an ordinary subject and tell us its story, and try to get us to at least be interested in it. That meant that in Scarface, De Palma could afford to leave his stage directions and spend the entire shoot in Europe. Tony Montana's defining character trait is that he's out of his freaking mind, and the fact that he's constantly violating the second great rule of drug dealing - don't get high on your own supply - ramps his craziness right up to eleven. Everyone hems and haws trying to keep up with Pacino, equipped with some of the most ridiculous dialogue I've ever heard, but still dialogue that spawned a generation of quoters.
I get the impression that most of the people besides Pacino who made Scarface weren't really trying, and yet Scarface is more revered than Brian De Palma's two follow-ups about gangsters - 1987's The Untouchables and 1993's Carlito's Way. Don't let my complaining fool you. Yes, Scarface is poorly made, but man, is it ever awesome.