Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Brian De Palma's contribution to modern crime movies, "Scarface" (**** out of ****), amounts to a splendid but extended remake of the 1932, black & white, Howard Hawks classic that starred Paul Muni and George Raft. In this lavish remake, Al Pacino of "The Godfather" trilogy plays the eponymous criminal as a Cuban refugee. He entered America by sea when Castro emptied his jails and asylums in May 1980 as part of the infamous Mariel boatlift. Some 125-thousand refugees fled Cuba, and about 25-thousand had criminal records. This extremely profane but engrossing drama depicts how the protagonist made it to the zenith of the crime world. When Universal Pictures produced this movie in 1983, they had no idea about either the controversy that would erupt during the south Florida lensing or the ultimate cult status that this corrosive, anti-narcotics, tragedy would generate, particularly with African-Americans. Eventually, the film aroused so much ill feeling that Universal had to complete the shooting in California. De Palma and scenarist Oliver Stone took one of the three greatest crime movies of the early 20th century and changed it more than either Hawks or his own scenarist Ben Hecht might have imagined. The original "Scarface" clocked in at a lean 94 minutes, while the "Scarface" remake stretches out to an indulgent 170 minutes. Nevertheless, DePalma and Stone have exploited a historical event to make their gangsters reminiscent of the immigrant gangsters during the era of the first "Scarface" movie. Indeed, at one point, Tony Montana explains to customs officials that he learned English because his American father took him to see Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney movies. He tells them that he worked in construction in Cuba, but they don't believe him and the pitchfork tattoo on Tony's hand makes him suspicious of him. They think that the tattoo is an assassin's tattoo. Considering that the film runs just shy of three hours, the filmmakers do a good job of balancing the violent empire building scenes with Tony's domestic life with his mother, sister, and later his wife. "Midnight Express" composer Giorgio Moroder's disco soundtrack ranks as one of the classics. Moroder does a superb job with the night club scenes and his moody music in the dramatic scenes is just as good. Lenser John A. Alonzo's widescreen color photography is elegant and his cameras have a way of roaming through a scene, especially before the shoot-out in the Babylon Club. DePalma likes to cross cut between different scenes, such as at the Babylon Club where Tony is about to be shot at to the interior of the car with his young sister Gina and his partner Manny as they drive away and discuss her brother. The best filmmakers cross-cut between scenes so as to break up the action, relieve boredom and deliver the plot piecemeal with the fewest complications.

Our underdog protagonist rises from the streets literally after he performs a murder at Freedomtown. Immigration officials have confined all the Cuban refugees, including Tony and his compadres, to a fenced in enclosure under a Florida freeway. Manny finds a way of out Freedomtown. Our protagonist kills a former confidante of Castro, Emilio Rebenga (Roberto Contreras of "Black Samurai"), for Miami drug dealer Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia of "Prizzi's Honor") because Rebenga tortured his brother in a Cuba prison. Tony and his compadres orchestrate the murder as a part of a riot on August 11, 1980, and they stalk Rebenga chanting the word "Libertad!" As a result of this murder, Lopez provides Tony Montana and his closest pal Manny (Steven Bauer of "Raising Cain") as well as some others with green cards. They start out as lowly dishwashers at a food stand called the El Paraiso. Nevertheless, it doesn't take them long to put on their suits and ties and then they never look back. Indeed, Lopez henchman Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham of "Amadeus") offers Tony and Manny $500 to unload a marijuana boat. Tony thinks the deal stinks because he has heard that the going price for unloading a boat was $1000. Omar winds up offering them a bigger paycheck. If they can pick up two keys of cocaine from a gang of Colombians arriving in Miami on Friday, Tony and Manny stand to earn $5000. Tony and Manny along with a couple of their Cuban buddies cruise over to the Sun Ray Motel and life is never the same after Tony enters the room. Everything looks okay. A man and a woman occupy the room and the movie "Earthquake" (1974) is playing on the television. The Colombian chieftain, Hector (Al Israel of "The Soldier"), tries to play a cat and mouse game with Tony. Things change drastically when Hector demands to know the whereabouts of Tony's money. Actually, Tony stashed the dough in the trunk of their convertible outside on the street with Manny and company. The Colombians seize Tony's back-up man Angel Fernandez (Pepe Serna of "American Me")at the door when Manny isn't watching, and Hector cuts him up with the chainsaw. Eventually, Manny shoots his way into the motel room with a machine gun in his fists blasting away at everybody in sight. He takes out the woman Marta (one-time only actress Barbra Perez), stitching her across the chest with flying lead. During the shoot-out, one of the Colombians that Manny thought that he had killed shoots him in the right side. The evil Hector who wielded the chainsaw flees in terror, but Tony chases him down in the middle of the street. In front of everybody, Tony perforates Hector's forehead with a bullet. Not only does Tony bring Lopez the coke but also the money.

Lopez takes an immediate liking to Tony. "Hey, I need a guy with steel in his balls. A guy like you. And I need him around me all the time," Lopez says. Meanwhile, Tony sets his sights on Lopez's slinky but gorgeous squeeze, Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer of "The Hollywood Knights"), but she seems more intent on snorting cocaine. Incidentally, Tony learns her last name on the dance floor and that she hails from Baltimore, Maryland. Anyway, Lopez assures Tony that if he flies straight with him that he will enjoy a long, happy life. He tells him that the biggest problem that Tony will face is what to do with all the stinking money. Lopez's words ring true but at a grim price.

Lopez sends Omar and Tony to Cochoabamba, Bolivia, to talk with a major druglord Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar of "The End of August") about cocaine. During their negotiations, Sosa smells a rat and has Omar taken up in a helicopter and thrown out with a noose around his throat. According to Sosa, Omar had served as a police informant several years ago and his information about Vito Duval and the Ramos Brothers--Nello and Gino--netted them both life sentences. Tony watches as Omar wiggles at the end of the rope. Predictably, Lopez is furious when Tony comes back with Omar and has a deal of a lifetime for Lopez that the crime kingpin cannot afford to buy. Tony assures Lopez that he can make up any difference in the lack of money by going out and hitting the streets. When Lopez argues that the Diaz brothers won't take kindly to Tony's ambitious movie, Tony erupts in a rage at Lopez. He is prepared to kill anybody that gets in his way. "Remember I told youwhen you started, the guys who last in this business are the guys who fly straight, low-key, quiet," Lopez reminds Tony. "And the guys who who want it all--chicas, champagne, flash--they don't last." Lopez is all but telegraphing his next move.

Meantime, Tony makes two new discoveries that heighten the tension in his life. He enters the Bablyon Club and spots his younger sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio of "The Perfect Storm")dancing with a thug. Tony goes ballistic with controlled rage and Moroder's music reflects this attitude change on the soundtrack. No sooner has Tony seen this than he finds himself talking to a cop. The cop mentions the Rebenga killing and the slaughter at the Sun Ray Motel to get Tony's attention. Corrupt detective MeL Bernstein (Harris Yulin of "Doc")informs Tony that Thony is no longer a small-time punk. "You're public property now. Supreme Court says your privacy can be invaded." Mel makes Tony a steep monthly offer. The offer includes the cops letting Tony know who is moving against him and shaking down anybody that Tony wants shaken done." Not-surprisingly, Lopez puts a contract out on Tony and two killers try to mow him down at the Babylon Club. Tony and his men kill both Lopez and Tony takes Elvira as his wife. He buys an estate, sets up a real estate business, and lives large, installing a 24-hour security monitoring system at his home. Ironically, Tony's affection for children bring him down along with his ferocious coke habit. When the cartel finds itself in the spotlight because of an anti-narcotic activist, Sosa appeals to Tony to help them. Tony is facing a stretch in prison, but Sosa assures him that he will come out clean if he helps his non-English speaking killer, Alberto (Mark Margolis of "Eddie Macon's Run"), murder the activist with a car bomb. Tony betrays Sosa and kills Alberto when the man tries to blow up the activist's car with the man's wife and two children. As tough as Tony is, he lacks the stomach to kill innocent bystanders, perhaps his only redeeming factor and what sets him apart from his criminal conspirators. Predictably, Sosa strikes back with a gang of gunmen who descend on Tony's estate, slashing, gashing, shooting, and killing without a qualm. They hit Tony's place like Indians on a night raid. Ironically, none of the surveillance cameras are useful for our protagonist, though they keep up posted on where the villains are.

Tony has other problems by now. He cannot find Manny and his mother, Mama Montana (Miriam Colon of "One-Eyed Jacks"), has been calling ever since Tony left for New York City about Gina. Gina has vanished but Mama Montana knows where she is; she followed Gina to a palatial estate at 409 Citrus Drive. If Tony were not keyed up enough after the debacle in the Big Apple with Alberto, his brotherly rage asserts itself and he heads to the estate. Manny appears at the door and Gina looks down at her new husband and her brother from a balcony, but it is too late. Tony's rage explodes and he shoots Manny twice before he learns from Gina that they have been married and wanted to surprise Tony. Talk about a surprise that shatters somebody's life, Tony realizes what he has done and his staggered by killing his oldest friend. When his bodyguards drive Gina and he back to the house, Tony looks terrible.

The themes of trust, greed, betrayal and cocaine abuse permeate Oliver Stone's elaborate screenplay and he has written some memorable lines of dialogue. "Nothing exceeds like excess," Elvira observes as she snorts some coke. Stone, who later became a notable film director himself with "Platoon" and "JFK," wrote "Scarface" after he wrote "Conan the Barbarian" for director John Milius and before he wrote "Year of the Dragon" for director Michael Cimino. If you watch "Scarface" enough, you'll notice that the film contains a wealth of irony. The scene at Lopez Motors when Lopez begs Tony not to kill him is a perfect example. Tony doesn't kill Lopez, he has Manny knock him off. The film is not without its moments of humor--few and far between--as when Manny tries his tongue action on a bikini-clad Caucasian female. At one point, Tony puts on a woman's hat to make Elvira laugh at him. The performances are all excellent, especially Loggia. De Palma and Stone carefully groom their protagonist Tony Montana who seems like an okay but abrasive guy until he shows a genuinely nasty side of his personality that involves being a little more than protective of his younger sister Gina. Tony doesn't want anybody to lay a hand on his sister. Squeamish people should probably avoid this trigger-happy, shoot'em up saga, especially the rather gruesome chainsaw scene in the bathroom of a motel with the Colombian drug smugglers.The finale at the Scarface residence is terrific!