"Nothing exceeds like excess," remarks a character in the gaudy gangster spectacle "Scarface," which opens today at area theaters. Unwittingly, the aphorism suggests the problem: "Scarface" is perhaps one half of a compelling remake of the classic 1930 Howard Hawks' movie.
A rise-and-fall crime epic, directed by Brian De Palma from a screenplay by Oliver Stone, "Scarface" is tailored as a dynamic-demonic starring vehicle for Al Pacino. And the movie seems to be onto something new: the culture of Cuban, Colombian and Bolivian drug merchants and enforcers, who have established a thriving port of call in South Florida and introduced a fresh set of ethnic variables into the standard gangster equation. During the "rise," the plot unfolds with assurance and sinister fascination.
The trouble begins with the "fall," which overwhelms Stone's powers of invention and overstimulates De Palma's considerable powers of baroque elaboration. This elaboration touches the outer limits of kitschy, nouveau riche ostentation in the gangster hangouts and residences; the material loses its raw, contemporary edge and falls back desperately on the cliche's of gangster films in general.
Pacino plays a Cuban convict-immigrant named Tony Montana, who enters the United States during the exodus from Mariel Harbor--part of the criminal population unloaded by Fidel Castro. He has reached the top of his unsavory profession and has nowhere to go but downhill, with a psychopathic vengeance. The downhill motions are familiar; the movies have taken us through them so often that it becomes tedious to watch them unravel so predictably. Indeed, the new "Scarface" clings dependently to certain elements and motifs from the original version.
Considering the controversy that surrounded the movie's rating--it took a hearing to reduce the rating board's quixotically disapproving X to a rational R--spectators are likely to anticipate an excess of graphic violence. There are violent episodes--including a couple harrowing enough to scare your eyes off the screen--but exposition rather than violence is what dominates. Ultimately, it stupefies. And it's mainly power of suggestion that makes the murderous interludes unnerving--nothing actually seen breaks new ground in the depiction of brutality.
De Palma has left characteristic imprints on "Scarface," but the movie was developed by producer Martin Bregman for Pacino and written by Stone before a director was selected. And the early episodes have a harsh, smoldering social immediacy that's unusual for De Palma. Even the pictorial style imposes deliberate contrasts that seem invented for the story rather than De Palma's gratification.
To be specific, De Palma and cinematographer John Alonzo alternate between sun-drenched daylight and ominously expectant night settings and interiors. It's almost as if the sunlight put the characters on roast and the night scenes found them illuminated inside a metaphoric infernal oven.
Pacino has caught the flavor of new immigrant male self-assertion and aggression in his early scenes. Tony gets off to a brilliant start, sparring with suspicious U.S. immigration officers in a way that reveals him as an insinuating sociopath. Although he never really looks young enough for the role (Tony shouldn't be out of his twenties and the star has begun to show signs of a haggard middle age), Pacino's vivid portrayal disarms the objection.
Once the script begins to sag, Pacino's baggy-eyed visage accentuates the decline, even when Tony is exploding into homicidal macho rages. There's an overpowering suggestion of fatigue and fatality in Pacino's visage, and it can't be accounted for simply by reasoning that Tony is a prematurely hardened, doomed social predator. At his greatest Pacino used to reflect tragic disillusion with awesome impact; now he suggests a burnt-out case from the outset. The longer he's obliged to sustain the role of Tony, the more he seems to be putting on an ethnic act; and audiences are likely to feel more comfortable with Steven Bauer's seemingly effortless portrayal as Tony's first lieutenant, Manny.
In addition, the downhill plot dumps Pacino into some pretty ludicrous dissolute postures--for example, chewing out Bauer and Michelle Pfeiffer, cast as the sulky, coked-up layabout who becomes Tony's wife, while reclining amid the bubbles of an immense sunken bathtub; or sinking his nose into a small mountain of cocaine before his last violent stand.
A movie that appeared intent on revealing an alarmingly contemporary criminal subculture gradually reverts to underworld cliche', covering its derivative tracks with outrageous decor and an apocalyptic, production number finale, ingeniously choreographed to leave the antihero floating face down in a literal bloodbath. As stylized social realism gives way to wigged-out Faustian fantasy, the would-be devastating effects have an oddly slapstick effect.
Bauer's impressive performance is augmented by good supporting work from Pfeiffer as the dissatisfied moll; Robert Loggia as Tony's glad-handing Florida mentor; Murray Abraham as Loggia's principal agent; Miriam Colon as Tony's upstanding immigrant mother (a pious cliche' that the actress is strong enough to individualize); and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his alluring, hellbent sister, whose progress from Nice Girl to Hot Item--and then back and then forth again--is decidedly expedient.
Bauer and Mastrantonio at their most appealing are rather like ethnic variations on John Travolta and Amy Irving, who also got their initial movie breaks in a De Palma movie, "Carrie." Despite the dramatic breakdowns, "Scarface" should provide them with a mutually advantageous showcase as attractive New Faces.