Brian De Palma, USA, 1983, 170 min.
It’s hard to review this film without having seen it in its initial release. Since then, Scarface has been copied, homaged, parodied, and referenced to death. One must wade through all of those additional layers to get back to what the film meant at the time it was released.
Or do you? Should I review the film where stands now or where it stood then? It’s an interesting question. First, the thing that doesn’t change: Technique. The direction of Scarface is raw and realistic. It’s good in a low-key, naturalistic way, letting the action and performances speak for themselves. It lacks the operatic De Palma style that I love, and instead chooses to let Pacino be operatic on his own.
Pacino’s performance is definitely strong. Maybe too strong. Again, it depends on when you saw it. Over the years it has become a parody of itself and that hurts the film now. But taken as it is, he has an over-the-top and energetic presence that carries the story.
The story itself is simple. We have seen it many times before. A poor character rises up through the ranks of the underworld and ultimately falls. The only unique thing about it is the 1980’s Cuban/cocaine angle. Otherwise, it’s Icarus all over again.
Overall, there is a lot to like about Scarface. It’s a bold film with an even bolder performance. It’s crafted well from a screenplay/direction point. But it lacks what De Palma is so good at. A certain type of tension-building style that only he can do. Carlito’s Way is a good example and a film I vastly prefer. In Scarface, De Palma leaves all of that to Oliver Stone and Pacino to cover, and it left me wondering what the film would have been like if he didn’t.