To say that Al Pacino chews the scenery as Tony Montana, Cuban drug lord par excellence, doesn’t really do justice to the performance. Pacino tears into his lines with a lust approaching frenzy, ripping through scenes with an animalistic fervor, creating a role that has already gone down in the books as one of the great, if not the greatest, portrayals of a gangster ever to hit the screen.
Pacino and producer Martin Bregman had a good idea in wanting to make an updated version of the original 1932 Scarface, which chronicled the rise and fall of a Prohibition-era Capone-like criminal overlord (screenwriter Ben Hecht was a Chicago journalist with a lot of intimate knowledge of Capone). Handing it over to director Brian De Palma (who had specialized mostly in psychosexual thrillers like Dressed to Kill and The Fury), and screenwriter Oliver Stone (whose credits included an Oscar for 1978′s Midnight Express but also Conan the Barbarian), was a daring move. Stone did a lot of research for the screenplay, hanging out and doing coke with drug lords all over Latin America, and De Palma promised to bring a certain visual flair to the proceedings.
Scarface starts in pretty much the only place it could: Miami, circa 1980, the time of the Mariel boatlift, in which Castro emptied his jails and allowed them all to flee to America, just at the time that cocaine use was on the rise. Miami during the early 1980s became the closest modern analogy to Chicago during Prohibition, and it’s into this free-for-all that the film drops Tony Montana, all snarl, hunger and tortured Cuban accent: ‘Fush you, mang.’
Tony and his buddy Manuel Ray (Steven Bauer, who was at least born in Cuba, unlike pretty much all of the rest of the actors playing Cubans here) are low-level hoods who connive their way out of the refugee camp, but not before assassinating a Communist official exiled by Castro. This job gets Tony and Manuel an audition assignment for kingpin Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia, playing not Cuban so much as Robert Loggia with dark makeup), leading to the infamous scene where Tony and one of his friends has a bad run-in with some Columbians and a chainsaw. But Tony and Manuel pass with flying colors, and pretty soon they’re Frank’s best new employees, with flash cars and tacky suits; Tony starting to give the eye to Frank’s girl, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer, cocaine-thin and mean as a snake).
Once Tony makes it to the top, with his sprawling, ugly mansion and mountains of cash and coke, Pacino withdraws into himself as his character loses the ambitious hunger that propelled him this far. In a more complex film, his drunken ‘is this all there is?’ speech at a fancy restaurant might have had more resonance, but this isn’t that kind of movie. What kind of movie is it? It’s the kind of movie with a blow-out climax in which swarms of gunmen storm Tony’s mansion, dozens of them getting mowed down by his ‘lil’ frien”, even as he’s peppered with bullets but refusing to die; true gangster style. It may have been inspired by Howard Hawks’s 1932 gangster classic, but Pacino, Stone, and De Palma’s crime epic, for all its flaws, became its own iconic movie watershed.