“Nothing exceeds like excess. You should know that.”
This film has been featured in an episode of my podcast on movies and mental health, Peculiar Picture Show!
The gangster film genre has a lot of great classics, such as The Godfather and Goodfellas, that are filled not only with criminal actions but also human drama and surprisingly relatable characters. Though it’s a good formula, there are a lot of tales of gangsters working to maintain their rather wholesome family lives while also living as professional criminals. We love and respect these characters because, despite their evil deeds, they’re not that different from you and me. But what about gangster movies that don’t have that softer edge? What about gangster movies that show a character so wild and out of control that his fate is basically broadcasted from the very start of the film? That’s what Scarface set out to be. Directed by Brian de Palma (Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables) and starring Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer, this film shows a criminal so over-the-top and power-hungry that you can’t help but feel that he’s going down even as he rises to the top. This isn’t quite as brilliant as The Godfather or entertaining as Goodfellas, but that doesn’t stop this from being highly entertaining and having some extremely well-written and well-acted scenes. This was a gangster movie of a different breed, and that is a very good thing.
The story follows Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant just released from a Cuban prison and struggling to make it in Miami. He gets involved with a minor crime boss, Frank Lopez, and signs on as a henchman, where his courage and brash nature quickly shoot him to the top of the organization. He begins importing tons of cocaine and distributing it all over the country, building a criminal empire and millions of dollars. But his thirst for money and power is never really quenched. How much is too much? How far is too far?
You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ So, what that make you? Good? You’re not good.
You can’t have a crime movie without drawing comparisons to The Godfather—particularly when that crime movie stars Al Pacino—but the two couldn’t be more different. Michael Corleone is refined, calculating, and ultimately admirable; Tony Montana is crude, rude, and definitely not admirable, although he is very interesting. Michael Corleone was a family man first and reluctantly took up the title of distinguished criminal, while Tony Montana is a “bad guy” right from the start. This is something that weighs heavily on Tony, as we see in the brilliant restaurant scene, but it’s a part of his personality that he can’t seem to get rid of. The conflicted character of Tony Montana, brought to life brilliantly by Al Pacino, is the most fascinating part of this film. But people who look at Tony and want to emulate his behavior have completely missed the point of the movie.
Scarface is a tale of excess set in the 80s, the decade of excess. Watching this now, you can’t help but think: this feels very 80s. The fashion, the acting style, and especially the music are all a product of this very flamboyant decade, and it all feels a little, well, over-the-top. It can at times feel like this is more style than substance, but I think this actually makes the film stronger. The artistic decisions in the film, just like the the character of Tony Montana, are larger than life and way over-the-top, but that’s the way they’re supposed to be. The culture of excess in the 80s worked its way into movies largely in the form of a carefree spirit and undying optimism, but this is one of the few blatant cautionary tales of where that excess would lead.
Scarface may seem like familiar territory now, but it was revolutionary when it came out. Having a criminal protagonist that actually, you know, behaved and felt like a criminal had scarcely been done, let alone so well. There are some moments of sloppy filmmaking and some scenes where the over-the-top style grates on the viewer, but there are a few brilliant scenes, some extremely quotable dialogue, and an explosive finale that still make this worth watching. If you’re a fan of the crime genre at all, this is an essential movie.
Director: Brian de Palma
Movies Like Scarface
- Goodfellas – More than any other film, this captures the little guy trying to rise to the top of the crime world, just like Tony Montana did. There’s some humor and charm mixed into Goodfellas that make things a little lighter, but that raw brutality is still there and comes out in some a few scenes. If you liked Scarface, this is a must-see crime film.
- Pulp Fiction – This Tarantino masterpiece features violence, memorable characters, and a killer style, from the dialogue to the costumes to the soundtrack. You don’t get the same in-depth look at a criminal empire like in Scarface, but a lot of the same pieces are there. This is one of the most entertaining and revered crime films of all time.
- Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels – This British crime film captures the British underworld with sharp wit and violent action. It’s a lot more clever and humorous than Scarface, but the grit and style are still there.