Gritty, Dirty, Raw Violence in “Scarface”. PLUS: Some Casting Notes

Scarface isn’t a classy film. Littered with profanity, open violence and shear grit, it’s one of those movies that could sometimes require a strong stomach for those who aren’t used to gritty movies. Al Pacino plays the ‘white trash’ version of Michael Corleone in this movie,  street-smart Cuban immigrant turned drug dealer Tony Montana. Besides Pacino, the film has no other A-list acts, save for a then unknown Michelle Pfeiffer playing Tony’s druggie wife Elvira Hancock. Steven Baeur plays Tony’s fellow immigrant and best friend Manny Ray, while Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays Tony’s sister, Gina.

Everything about this movie is so very 80’s– from the garish opening font to the annoying drawl of the score to the ancestral synth pop (origins of today’s EDM). Costume design gets it right with the suits, the glitter, and the cleavage dresses (later seen on Amy Adams in American Hustle). Even the set design echoes the period perfectly. For any aspiring set/costume designer looking for a good film as inspiration for an 80’s time setting, this is the movie to look to. It was, after all, made in the 80’s.

A film that’s almost three hours long shouldn’t have plot holes and an excuse not to develop character relationships, yet Scarface doesn’t. Tony and Elvira’s relationship lacks even a smidgen of genuine chemistry. Yes, we get that Elvira may be the type who seems willing to just throw herself from one drug dealer to another, but that doesn’t give the film an excuse to allow her to go from being totally ignorant of Tony to marrying him willingly in a span of three months.

Honestly, Pfeiffer is bland in this movie. She played the ornamental role well but she just didn’t have much to do. Mastrantonio isn’t the best, but she’s got more to work with than Pfeiffer. Steven Baeur should’ve had more chances to speak up, but that just wouldn’t be fitting of his character Manny. Besides, he had his moments.

I need not state the obvious, but yes, Pacino is the star of this movie. It would be wrong to compare this to his work as Michael Corleone, but I have to admit the similarities are there, save for Corleone’s classiness and his choice to become legitimate. But Tony has the fun that Michael doesn’t: he handles the weaponry in Scarface, and gets to play in several scenes in the movie. One particularly iconic scene involves Tony and his “little friend”: a powerful machine gun that starts off the movie’s bloody denouement. On the other hand, Michael is educated and he gets the chance to grow old and have a family. Tony doesn’t seem to give a crap about that. He’s more of a fatalistic anti-hero, one that does more wrong than right. I haven’t seen nor read much Al Pacino interviews, but it seems to me like he had more fun playing Tony Montana than he did Michael Corleone. The role may be less respected, but it is still considered a classic in its respective genre.

Scarface is an acquired taste type of film. Rooted in its decade and its genre, it contains elements that don’t necessarily transcend to the majority of the movie going audience. But if there’s one thing to remember, it’s that it does what it’s supposed to do almost flawlessly. Guns, coke, blood, women..Scarface plays with these elements and uses them excessively to the point of shear exaggeration. Any crime film fan fond of mobster/drug tales would be madly in love with this movie. Can’t say I am, though.


Postscript: On Casting Choices 

When Memoirs of a Geisha was released back in 2005, there was some controversy surrounding the casting of non-Japanese actresses Michele Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in roles meant for Japanese women: geishas. Why is it that the same uproar never surrounded Andy Garcia’s casting as Italian Vincent Mancini in the third Godfather when he’s Cuban-American and not Italian? Or Al Pacino’s case in Scarface when he played a Cuban guy when he’s Italian by blood?

Perhaps it was because of the roles that Ziyi and Yeoh were set to play. Geishas are an important and valued aspect of Japanese culture, and the Japanese probably wanted this to be respected even by Hollywood film producers.

Forgive me for stating the obvious there, but it was something that I just wanted to wonder aloud about– and I’m curious to know what other people think about it. Is it really a matter of culture? You be the judge.




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