In Which I Finally Watch Scarface

Scarface has been one of those pillars of pop culture that I’ve somehow avoided seeing all my life. I’d heard of it, certainly, and I’d heard “Say hello to my little friend” quoted again and again, but I’d never actually sat down and watched it.

Then I read that someone was making a $1000 special edition of the thing, and I finally decided to see what the fuss was about. Also, I’d been feeling ill and having a very long movie to take up my time sounded good. I plopped myself in front of my computer, and watched Al Pacino unleash his characteristic bombast.

Short review: Scarface is kind of overrated.

Long review: The film tells the story of Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who rises up the ranks of Miami’s cocaine-dealing hierarchy. He starts as a lowly foot soldier and then becomes lord and master of a coke-funded empire.

The story arc was fairly predictable, but I wondered if that was an artifact of me watching it in 2011. All of the rags-to-riches-to-rags tropes seemed to be in place, and I wondered if the movie would have seemed less clunky and obvious in the early eighties. A predictable movie, however, can be overcome with great characters and good writing, though. Unfortunately, there wasn’t very much of that.

None of the characters in Scarface “pop.” All of them are pretty broad and one-dimensional, and the supporting cast is never really given anything to do except react to Tony Montana. The movie really is all about one guy. Tony Montana says something, and the supporting casts reacts. He does something, and the plot moves forward. He gives a speech, and the other characters react with rapt attention. It was as if the people who weren’t Al Pacino just disappeared when they weren’t on screen.

Pacino himself was fine, but to tell the truth I found his goofy faux-Cuban accent get in the way of his acting. For the whole movie I could not shake the thought “Wow, that’s a really stupid voice that Al Pacino is doing.” Pacino is great and quite fun to watch, but I found myself wishing I was watching one of his better performances, like his turn as Satan in The Devil’s Advocate.

I also didn’t find Tony Montana to be all that interesting of a main character. The movie is largely about what happens when a poor guy suddenly finds himself extremely wealthy. Tony doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with his money- he buys a bunch of gaudy gold shit and a big house that he can be bored in. I know that the movie was trying to say something about the emptiness of materialism or whatever, but I had trouble buying it. I sort of wanted to shout at the screen “Why don’t you go take an interesting vacation or something?” I know that Montana is supposed to be something of an uneducated yokel, but I found his gross lack of creativity hard to empathize with.

Also, he’s an utter scumbag. I don’t usually mind following evil characters as long as they’re interesting, but Tony Montana has the drawback of being both a nasty human being and not particularly smart. Late in the movie, the viewer is supposed to empathize with him because he refuses to kill a child. That didn’t get my sympathy, though. Refraining from kid-killing is a fairly low bar to clear, and the scene felt manipulative and false.

So it has a predictable plot, and uncompelling characters. The thing that saves Scarface (a bit) are two very well done scenes. One is a tense scene towards the beginning that ends up with a guy getting killed with a chainsaw, and a subsequent gunfight. Another is the ending, wherein Tony’s mansion is stormed by a small army of hitmen.

When the line “Say hello to my little friend!” did finally jumpt out of the speakers, I did enjoy it, and the bombastically violent finale is fun in an 80s action movie type way. There’s blood and bullets and a nice sense of finality when Tony Montan finally, finally dies.

But Scarface left me cold. It’s not as good as The Godfather, Goodfellas, or even Casino. It’s not really Pacino’s best performance. The action sequences are good, but not enough to carry the movie. Had I seen it with no expectations, I probably would have enjoyed it more, but it certainly didn’t live up to its reputation. Anyone who actually gets the $1,000 special edition of this thing is, I’m afraid, something of a chump.

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