Scarface travels well and survives the excesses of Al Pacino and the 80s Vision Quest/Flashdance/Top Gun cheeseball musical interludes (as Tony Montana’s crime empire grows, we are treated to a flashy 80s number, “Push it to the Limit” by the estimable Paul Engemann). The plot is simple. Cuban Marielitos (Pacino and Steven Bauer) come to Miami, work their way up the drug trade, do too much blow, and flame out. Scarface is an exercise in excess equal to the appetites of its characters. Pacino’s performance is gruesomely cartoonish, the violence is extreme, and DePalma lovingly lingers on each grisly moment.
The film is also very funny, not as camp, but intentionally so. DePalma does what David Chase does with Tony Soprano on HBO – he shoves Tony’s barbarism in your face, but he surrounds Tony with even more despicable characters, so you can root for him. Oliver Stone’s script loads Tony up with his own set of Harry Callahan one-liners. When his one-time boss, Robert Loggia, begs for his life, Tony leans down and says “I not gonna’ kill you.” As Loggia kisses Tony’s feet and thanks him, Tony turns to Bauer and says “Shoot this fu**ing cock-a-roach.” It’s a funny moment. Later, Harris Yulin, the corrupt Miami cop, takes one in the gut from Tony and he’s stunned. “You can’t shoot a cop,” he says, as he looks at the hole in his belly. But then he puts his hand up, and screams “Wait!” I love that moment. He’s still in the game. He thinks he can still make a deal. And as Tony becomes more powerful and self-pitying, he announces himself with “Make way for the bad guy.”
Scarface is also very effective at creating tension. Scene after scene ratchet up a fair amount of dread, from Tony’s favor knifing in a Miami holding area; to the botched drug transfer, where Tony’s compadre is chopped up with a chainsaw; to an unsuccessful nightclub hit on Tony, to Loggia’s murder. The doomed love story between Bauer and Tony’s sister, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, also works. They seem to have a real affection for each other, and while you may root for Tony with guilt, you really like Bauer, who seems a very sweet thug. It’s also good to see Pacino, F. Murray Abraham, Mastrantonio and Loggia taking a stab at Cuban. They all come out with a different interpretation. The ending is giddy and ridiculous. Tony has become a coked out Superman. As assasins swarm over his estate like . . . well, like cock-a-roaches, he emerges from a pile of blow to kill almost all of them, with a very big gun.