Most remakes disappoint. Scarface proves an exception. It reimagines Howard Hawks’ 1932 gangster picture as a contemporary psycho-sexual thriller with terrific results.
Transplanting the action from dark Chicago to sun-drenched Miami, and backed by a pulsating Giorgio Moroder score, the film’s atmosphere proved a cultural touchstone, aped by countless other productions such as the popular Miami Vice television series.
The story sees Al Pacino play Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee expelled by Castro. He arrives in the US and lands in an interment camp. A contract hit greases the wheels of his release and soon he’s auditioning for a drug czar, buying cocaine from a group of Colombians.
The deal, of course, goes sour, but director Brian De Palma’s handling of the sequence shines. He plays it like a Hitchcockian thriller. The Colombians ambush Tony and his bodyguard and string them up in the shower, preparing to torture them. As a chainsaw revs, the camera pans out the bathroom window and down to the sunny street below. The chainsaw sound fades, replaced by street noise, but we see blood splatter across the window as the camera settles on Tony’s right-hand man flirting with a passing girl. A taunt bit of suspense follows.
Hawks’ original concerned two rival gangs battling for control of Chicago. This update focuses on Tony’s rags-to-riches story. His ascent to drug kingpin entails equal parts Machiavellian violence and capitalistic maneuvering. Naked greed and ambition paired with a willingness to take risks. A twisted version of the American dream.
The film’s lone weakness is the second act. After his rise to power, Tony’s reign underwhelms. I’ve seen the film countless times and always forget there’s an entire sequence where Tony travels to New York City. Said sequence proves a MacGuffin—crucial to the plot but tangential to the story. At least it’s short, allowing the film to get about the compelling business of tearing Tony down.
And what a fall. The new script carries over Tony’s incestuous obsession with his sister, Gina, played here by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. De Palma uses dramatic zooms to heighten Tony’s sense of psycho-sexual angst. But it’s the bullet riddled climax that resonates. Hawks’ version had Tony holed-up shooting it out with an army of cops. This update proves more cynical, with Tony battling an army of cartel thugs. After all, it’s not a question of legality. It’s just business.