Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Classic Films: Scarface (1983)

"[Y]ou asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I'm in the empire business." - Walter White (Breaking Bad)
Recently I was watching the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, where I learned a lot about Howard Hughes - including the fact that he was responsible for the original Scarface. As much as I tried to look for the original, I was not able to find it on DVD. So I settled for the 80s remake; though given it was also on the AFI's list of top gangster films, settled might be underselling it.

The first thing that struck me about the movie was how 80s it was, even down to a montage set to pop music. For better or worse, the film definitely lets you know where it sits. It's an ambitious film, as such a story demands, though the runtime made the film feel like it had slightly overstayed its welcome. Did it really need to be near 3 hours to tell that story?

The film centres around the anti-hero Tony Montana (brilliantly played by Al Pacino); a character that through sheer determination drives the world to change around him. A ruthless despicable man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, which was both his path to glory and to his eventual downfall.

This leads to what feels to me as cliché. We cannot root for the anti-hero, we cannot condone what he has done. His downfall is set by his moral trajectory. Otherwise we are rooting for a monster. Here I feel the film did something interesting; it recast the character into a somewhat sympathetic light. He needed to die, but he was broken long before his final breath.

But what lesson are we meant to take from a film where the downfall of a monster was one last shred of humanity? Perhaps its a statement of the inhumanity of the drug trade, and that what we are meant to understand is how ruthless the drug trade is. Indeed, this is what I read the filmmaker argued to avoid censorship, and something entirely understandable by looking at what's happening in Mexico today.

While the film is violence and full of profanities, the film doesn't seem in any way shocking because of them. Maybe in 1983 it was one film that raised the bar, but doesn't stand out today. It's a reminder of how desensitised I've become.

I want to say I enjoyed the film, but I'm not sure how accurate that would be. While it was epic in ambition, and the portrayal by Pacino was mesmerising, it was let done by excessive length, a simplistic plot, and very little in the way of character development. When Walter White explains on Breaking Bad that he's in the empire business, we have taken the journey with him and can see and understand why he's done what he's done. Scarface by contrast was quite hollow - an immigrant who wanted the world, but miscalculated what that actually meant.

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