I’d never seen this film on the big screen and if ever a film called for being seen on the big screen, it’s surely the massive, bloated, excessive, over-the-top Scarface. So when a local theater screened it, I made the time to go. I last saw the film years and years ago and my memory is of only seeing it once. In the intervening years, I had forgotten . . . just how good it actually is. Yeah, I said it. It’s absurd, ridiculous and insane, but it’s also surprisingly good.
Now, I don’t mean to argue that it’s a film that’s really good or even mostly good. I mean, you’ve got F. Murray Abraham prancing about as a Cuban gangster, for God’s sake. And he’s outdone by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s absolute operatically nonsensical performance as Tony’s younger sister. In any other movie, she’d be the most ridiculous thing; but Pacino is by God not going to let that happen. But Pacino’s performance, like the film as a whole, finds a place of just pure entertainment that’s really compelling and compulsively watchable. The film really flies by and doesn’t feel at all as long as its nearly three hour running time. The film is in no way thoughtful or intelligent, but it’s certainly canny, even in its silliest moments. And Pacino’s performance really does often work exactly as it’s supposed to. In the climax, for instance, he’s literally frothing at the mouth (a detail I didn’t notice on the small screen, but it’s there; there is literal white foam flying out of his mouth), but his rage is genuinely compelling and the gunfight is orgasmic in all the right ways and almost none of the cheesy ones. It’s not subtle when the camera pans up to “The World is Yours,” but it lands. By God, it lands. The film is . . . visceral, no doubt.
But it isn’t just the excessiveness that sinks the film. The moment when Tony suddenly develops a conscience about killing women and children feels totally ridiculous and unmotivated. To this point, the character has seemed to have no morality whatsoever. For him to be willing to throw away his entire criminal empire just because he doesn’t want to kill a couple of extra people is just stupid and absurd. And let’s not even get into the fact that all they have to do is wait for their target to DROP HIS FAMILY OFF AT THE CURB and THEN blow him up. Jesus Christ. Four guys in the car and NOBODY thinks of that. Four experienced killers, no less. Plus, that muddles the message of the film. It’s actually his failure to make good on that hit that leads to Tony’s death. And so, for all the horrible things we’ve seen him do over the course of the film and as repugnant a character as he is, he actually dies for doing something GOOD. The film apparently thinks we’re too stupid to notice this as we’re obviously supposed to get a big moral charge out of his downfall and, well, honestly I still did. But the message that Tony’s greed, avarice and cruelty have destroyed him simply isn’t true; it’s the one tiny piece of his decent humanity that’s left that destroys him. Which is kind of a counterintuitive message, frankly. And that’s if you buy that bit of humanity in the first place, which I don’t. I mean, I’ve spent two and a half hours with this person and he is literally one of the most morally repugnant characters of all time; at this point, I don’t want the film to hairpin and try to get me feeling some sort of sympathy for him. The reason I’m still here at this point is because I want to see this guy go down in flames. And, of course, he does, but still . . . I don’t want to have even the slightest moral shading or empathy intruding on that climax. It’s just a stupid, bad call and in a script that has been incredibly smart and canny about the calls it makes, it’s an odd clanger.
But still, it’s a classic and, while the film is only sporadically good and is pretty often quite bad, it’s a film that operates on a totally unique plane. It’s maybe the most seriously flawed film that I call a great film. But I do call it that. It’s a great film that isn’t even all that good. Does that make sense? As much sense as the movie makes. It’s a just a relentlessly visceral film and a genuinely phenomenal one, even at its most stupid, though it isn’t ever, surprisingly, so bad as to be funny. It’s not a great film in the way Plan 9 from Outer Space is; it’s not great because of its badness – it’s definitely great in spite of the badness. But still, it has to get my highest ranking, deeply flawed as it is. Because it simply is a film that MUST be seen. And it certainly is an emotional roller coaster ride, a gripping, fantastic cinematic experience. It’s never boring, let’s all admit that. Anyway, great movie. Highly recommended. 4 stars.
tl;dr – relentlessly visceral and entertaining, even at its silliest and most genuinely awful. Excessive in both the best ways and the worst, it’s a film that simply must be seen. A great film that isn’t even really a good one. 4 stars.