Say hello to his little friend

12 Feb
Scarface (1983)

Scarface (1983)


Violence in film is cool. Wait, let me rephrase that, violence in great film is cool. Not because of the cool action sequences that leave trails of blood as something visceral for the sake of aesthetic values but the idea behind the story that generates a build up that causes the violence in the first place culminates into a somewhat powerful snow ball like effect. The violence is just an extension of the strong theme that got build up from the inside. In other words, violent films with great themes/stories behind it made the violence much more impactful and ultimately cooler and more significant, like ‘Scarface’.

There is no other film that is more notorious due to its “glorification” of violence than ‘Scarface’ and also the most misunderstood. On the surface, you got every wannabe real life gangsters/hustlers/rappers/drug pushers that worships ‘Scarface’ as if it was their own personal code of honour or ‘how to’ guide book in their underworld’s fantasy. And I don’t blame them. Who wouldn’t want to be Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a self made man who crawls from the gutter of refugee camp from Cuba and claws/maims/kills his way to the top of the gangster food chain in Miami. Playing by his own rules, brutal like a raw force of nature, taking anything he pleases and becomes the king who lives in excess of his own fantasy.

It’s the ultimate rags to riches story but with guns, sex, violence and more cocaine than you can imagine. It’s a story about excess and 80’s decadence marked by greed, business de-regulation and right wing fascism of Reaganism. It’s a cautionary tale about hyper capitalism gone wrong and out of control. This is what most people didn’t get.

America in the 80’s under Ronald Reagan encouraged economic growth through radical means. Minimizing social responsibilities by cutting funds for health/social/arts/education services, de-regulating many important business laws which left big corporations to do what they pleased in the name of profit, cutting tax for the rich and wealthy to encourage spending and expansion. The motto of the 80’s which was captured perfectly by the movie ‘Wall Street’ was “Greed is good.”

When Director Brian DePalma and screenwriter Oliver Stone tried to remake the original 1932 ‘Scarface’ which was directed by the great Howard Hawks, they didn’t want to just remake a simple gangster film. They wanted to put their own mark in the story by making a subversive statement about their own times. They wanted to explore the theme of greed to the fullest and to show the consequences it will have on Montana.

We all know America is the land of opportunity, filled with the promise of if you work hard enough, you can achieve your dreams. But what happens when you are willing to go overboard/all the way to achieve those dreams and when you achieved them, it’s still not enough? So you reach for more and in the process you ignore laws, disregard social conventions/society, destroy everyone you love and ultimately killing yourself with excess.When your theme is greed and excess, you can’t be timid. Your statement must be bold and over the top. There is no subtlety or elegance approach like ‘The Godfather’, it must be furious, bloody and head on. Just like Montana.

His ascension to the top is filled with violence and blood but he still has his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer) to keep him barely balanced and his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) to keep his humanity (what little he has left) in check. When Montana sees his Boss’s girlfriend Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), he desires her as the ultimate prize. In a not so subtle statement about capitalism and power, Montana warns Manny:

“In this country, you gotta make the money first, then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.”

Another aspect of ‘Scarface’ that was criticized heavily was the depiction of Cuban refugees by Montana and his posse as low life gangsters which is understandable because it portrayed Cubans in a negative light but DePalma’s vision was not about ethnicity it’s about the shift of ideology of Montana who came from a communist ruled background and got let out in the open space of capitalist’s “land of opportunity” to finally able to chase his dreams and glory. In America, you can over indulge yourself with power, wealth and women. It’s ripe for the taking.

Even when Montana reaches the top and conquers Elvira, there is no real human relationship. Montana sees her as a prized trophy, Elvira sees him as another “Dirty refugee who comes off the boat” who has power and money to provide her with material needs. When Montana asks her to marry him, it’s sounding more like a contract agreement than a couple in love.

Tony: “You like children?”

Elvira: “As long as there’s a nurse.”

Supply and demand.

Ultimately  ‘Scarface’ owes more to a  Shakespearean tragedy than the original film. As greed and power overtakes reason and feeds off Montana’s ego and turning him into a paranoid mess. Montana loses everything he holds dear in a tragic fashion and in a climactic violence that is considered one of the best gunfights battle in cinematic history, Montana still plays by his own rules even in his demise. Just like greed in the 80’s that wrecked countries and devastated countless lives. It only ends when it destroyed itself.

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