‘Scarface:’ Say hello to its little DVD

Dana Imperia

“They came in search of the American Dream. One of them found it on the sun-washed avenues of Miami … wealth, power and passion beyond his wildest dreams. He was Tony Montana. The world will remember him by another name – Scarface.” – “Scarface” (1983)

Since its debut 20 years ago, Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,” starring Al Pacino, has swept through America like a plague silently ravaging and infecting American culture. From affluent neighborhoods to poverty-stricken ghettos, “Scarface” has become one of the most influential and legendary gangster films ever made. Following a traditional epic structure, “Scarface,” chronicles the rise and fall of the notorious gangster, Tony Montana. After its release in 1983, the movie faced public outcry for its dramatically violent scenes and was labeled a failure by several movie critics. Yet, over the years, “Scarface” has built a fervent and devoted following, especially amongst college students and hip-hop stars. Why has a movie, once disastrous in the box office, become a permanent staple in today’s popular culture? Although people once rejected the movie, “Scarface” has become to the ’90s what “The Breakfast Club” was to the ’80s: an underground classic.

In this vividly violent movie the main characters, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) and Manolo Ray (Steven Bauer), ascend from lowly Cuban refugees to high-flying drug lords of a South Florida cocaine empire; however, “Scarface” represents more than the typical gory drug movie. Rather, it chronicles the hostile campaign of Tony, a criminal with diminishing options, who lusts for the universal dream of wealth, power and respect. Immediately in the opening scene of the movie, Tony’s arrogant personality is revealed as he argues with immigration officers for his freedom. As a Cuban refugee, Tony’s placed in an internment camp. Finding himself backed up against a wall, Tony only gains his freedom by killing a Cuban political henchmen which honors Tony’s contract with an outside source. This resolute pursuit makes him dangerously determined to succeed.

Then in the most disturbing scene of the movie, the famous chainsaw scene, Tony displays his courage and bold obstinacy in the face of almost certain death. In a drug deal gone bad, Tony witnesses his friend being butchered by a chainsaw and never wavers in his loyalty to his boss Frank Luggia, a local drug lord. Tony’s a man who sticks to his own set of principles which he clearly states: “All I got is my balls and my word and I don’t break for nobody.” By following the rules Tony quickly establishes himself as a major player in the cocaine industry. Eventually, Tony’s staunch ambition influences him to steal Luggia’s mistress, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), as well as Luggia’s territory, and to establish himself as the new reigning drug lord.

Finally, one of the most notable aspects of “Scarface” is Tony’s final demise towards the end of the movie. Tony allows pride and ego to blind his actions, plus his growing cocaine addiction clouds his head. Tony’s refusal to trust anyone sabotages relationships with his best friend, sister and wife. Basically, he’s a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. But more importantly, greed consumes him. He’s preoccupied by entourages, palaces, outrageous clothes and women, causing him to lose touch with reality. At the end of the movie, this mix of cocaine with adrenaline and ego lead him to think he’s a man just short of becoming God. With a sense of invincibility, Tony’s left to the mercy of the Columbian drug organization, a “business” rival, hoping to eliminate the competition.

At first, “Scarface” appears to recount the standard, mundane story of a person’s leap from rags to riches (I like this cliché because it shows how “Scarface” could have been mundane), yet the movie overcomes this bleak normalcy and is anything but monotonous. Audiences marvel at Tony’s accomplishments, but feel troubled by the actions he uses to achieve them. The realization that Tony will meet his ruin is understandable and seems richly deserved, but it is still met with a final sigh of lament. Although at times Pacino’s depiction of Tony seems a bit overdone, it remains a riveting performance that unquestionably haunts the mind. Pacino’s austere Cuban accent and intensely passionate acting leaves viewers thunderstruck, rooting for Tony’s triumphant conquest. Also, you would think that Tony’s imperious and insatiable behavior would seem detestable, but Pacino commands respect and admiration. By the end of the movie, Tony Montana, a villain who believes he’s above the law, becomes an icon of reverence.

Yet, the question remains – why was “Scarface” unsuccessful in the ’80s? And why now have young adults and hip-hop artists rallied around the movie with unwavering support? During the ’80s many people rejected “Scarface” because it’s an aggressive movie that scrutinizes high profile society. Others believe it embellishes the criminal world. In actuality the movie puts into perspective the drug world and the consequences of choosing a life of crime. There may be glamour and glitz, but there’s also murder and mayhem. Rather than glorify the whole cocaine culture of the ’80s, audiences see the devastating results of dabbling in its possessive evils. “Scarface” is a brutally honest movie that’s frightening to mainstream audiences, who would much rather ignore the gruesome details of life.

With the growing popularity of hip-hop culture in affluent suburbs, “Scarface” fascinates young adults, particularly college students. Since mainstream society didn’t accept the shocking reality of “Scarface,” the movie becomes more appealing to young adults. “Scarface” opens a window into the foreign world of crime and hardship. Also, this desire for wealth and power is a universal theme. Tony’s absolute fortitude makes people want to be him, and his dream allows people to see themselves in him. He displays appealing characteristics like courage, integrity and intelligence. But more importantly, no matter how you feel about Tony’s actions, “Scarface” demands that you respect Tony’s determination, from where he comes from and where he goes.

For 20 years, “Scarface” has slyly woven itself into mainstream popular culture. With its recent re-release in 2003, the movie has finally obtained the recognition it deserves. Gritty and raw, the film, just like its main character, is unabashedly blunt in all respects. De Palma’s film not only captures America’s obsession with material possessions, but illuminates the darker side of materialism by depicting its pursuit in a style which isn’t compatible with mainstream moral beliefs.

Even though Tony’s demise is evident, audiences remain entranced by the storyline. While many people still discard the movie as a typical, bloody gangster film, it has clearly stamped its mark on many young minds.

Tony Montana has become an admired, legendary character even as he plunges to his death. Although Scarface may not yet have rendered the title of a timeless classic, it’s clear the movie has developed into an underground phenomenon.