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SCARFACE

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 18, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Although ‘Scarface’ has its fans, most critics find it wanting. Including me. But since the film has recently made its 4K Blu-ray debut, here’s my review, published in the Deseret News on Dec. 11, 1983.

Toward the end of “Scarface,” Al Pacino sticks his face into a huge mound of cocaine on his desk and snorts like a hungry hog. The moment is meant to show just how ridiculously excessive the Cuban refugee-cum-kingpin’s life has become. But it also typifies the movie’s excesses, which are so extreme they occasionally take on tones of parody.

And at the very end of the film, there is a dedication — to Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht, the respective director and writer of the original 1932 “Scarface,” with Paul Muni. That seems especially ironic, since the first film was a prime example of tight scripting and directing by Hecht and Hawks respectively. But the 1983 “Scarface,” with script by Oliver Stone (“Midnight Express,” “The Hand”) and direction by Brian De Palma (“Dressed to Kill,” “Carrie”), is so loosely structured it’s flabby.

The problems are many in this film, and it’s hard not to wonder if they might have been diminished had the film been pared down from its nearly three-hour running time to somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours. If that had happened maybe we wouldn’t notice so much the superficiality of it all, the illogical progression and the simple-minded stereotypes.

     

Because “Scarface” is so ambitious, and aspires so strongly to be something great its many failures become more obvious. And since Pacino is the star, and the genre is the gangster film, comparisons to “The Godfather” films become impossible to avoid.

But where “The Godfather” films succeeded, aside from the obvious benefits of Coppola-Puzo and an incredibly talented cast, was in the dignity of its “family” structure. We could identify with these people, though we obviously could not condone their actions.

And in the old Cagney-Bogart gangster films, about a single man’s rise in organized crime, the characters always had some redeeming feature, some element — whether Cagney’s love for his mother, or some minor vulnerability in Bogey — that added a certain amount of humanism.

Pacino’s “Scarface” is a total scumbag from Frame 1, and that might be OK but for the fact that there isn’t a single other person in the film with whom you can sympathize. The only person Pacino cares for is his sister and he seems to harbor incestuous feelings toward her.

     

Pacino’s performance is also curious. Constantly sullen with a deeply downturned mouth, and an accent that sounds like Jose Jiminez, Pacino skulks across the screen, muttering, bullying, yet never really becoming a frightening or larger-than-life character, as is obviously intended.

The film takes him from his flight to the United States through his murderous entrance into the world of drug-running in Miami and eventual status as a kingpin to be reckoned with. But most of this is so rapid that it becomes idiotic and the character never seems strong enough to warrant his rise in infamy.

Worse, his eventual downfall is totally unbelievable as it results from his refusing to kill a wife and children along with a “hit” victim. A noble gesture but it comes out of the blue from a character that has heretofore been utterly ruthless and uncaring, even about those closest to him.

Despite lapses, Pacino does put a lot of energy into his performance, and De Palma is as stylish and technically refined, if heavy-handed, a director as always.

But the film is ultimately just too empty to care about.

As to the X rating this film originally received, it seems much ado about nothing. Yes, the film is very violent. Yes, it literally rains blood and hails bullets, and yes, a new record has been set for the use of profanity in a single film. But I’ve seen worse examples of blood and gore that have always managed to walk away with an R rating. “Scarface” also has sex and nudity, as you might expect.

If hype, hoopla and controversy mean box-office dollars, “Scarface” will probably be a major hit. But in terms of quality, it is a major disappointment.