Classic Intel: Scarface - Cinema Review

'shuns the conventionally dark and monochrome style of the gangster genre for a luridly multicoloured palette that reflects the excesses and commercialism of both the characters and their 1980s Miami surroundings'

It’s all too easy to allow yourself to get swept away when watching Scarface by its now iconic status and the infamous scenes and lines littered throughout. Brian De Palma’s direction oozes style and charisma just as much as its star Al Pacino in the title role, charming you every step of the way through his three hour gangster epic. But just like any other film - iconic or otherwise - Scarface deserves to be fully and honestly critiqued, rather than given a free pass to classic status because of its striking looks and swaggering machismo.

There are flaws here, something which many Pacino and De Palma enthusiasts would have you either deny or ignore. At three hours, De Palma occasionally either lets his film become notably less focused, or gives in to indulging himself when he should be editing a scene here and there. Scarface never drags, but by the time you reach the credits you may find yourself wondering if it might have felt tighter had it lost as little as fifteen minutes through some fairly easy cuts.

Oliver Stone’s script also drops the ball once or twice when it comes to character development. The relationship between Gina Montana (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and Manny Ribera (Steven Bauer) initially burns slowly, hinted at here and there; De Palma skilfully elects to tread as carefully as the two characters, bringing a palpable subtlety to the pair’s emotional journey. The leap Stone’s script and De Palma’s direction takes with Gina and Manny during the final act therefore feels too far out of nowhere, scrapping the gradual development for a sudden and unlikely shift that leaves something of a dissatisfying aftertaste. A more prominent candidate for underdevelopment however is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Elvira, who never feels fleshed out beyond the bare minimum for her character to serve the purposes the story needs at various points throughout the film.

Once you’ve recognised the film’s shortcomings, however, it’s that much easier to celebrate the wealth of excellence within Scarface. De Palma creates a unique and mesmerising criminal world for Tony Montana (Pacino) and his associates to inhabit. The director assuredly shuns the conventionally dark and monochrome style of the gangster genre for a luridly multicoloured palette that reflects the excesses and commercialism of both his characters and their 1980s Miami surroundings. De Palma expertly controls the camera throughout, crafting irresistible cinematography punctuated by ultra-violence as and when it is needed. Only when the film reaches its seductive climax does the director allow the bloodshed to crescendo into the realms of fantasy, muddying the lines between what is real and what is occurring in Tony’s cocaine-saturated brain.

Central and crucial to Scarface’s overwhelming success is undoubtedly the performance from Pacino. From the very first moment Tony Montana appears on screen, a Cuban refugee smartmouthing his way into the US, Pacino is electric and utterly superb. The actor’s total immersion in the role is uncanny, making Tony’s violent, drug-fuelled rise through the ranks of the Miami underworld pure escapist gold whilst simultaneously utterly authentic. Whether or not we’re now inside Tony’s psyche when Pacino is snorting coke by the fistful during the final act, white powder cascading down his sharply cut suit, the actor makes sure it feel real because it’s undeniably real to Tony. The famous lines and scenes here deserve their notoriety, with Tony’s “say goodnight to the bad guy” speech, delivered to the dumbfounded patrons of a high class restaurant, the epitome of Scarface’s many flawless, unforgettable moments. Tony Montana is often held up as one of Pacino’s all-time great performances; all you have to do to see why is sit back and watch.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.


  1. A balanced and fair critique of one of my favourite films.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Lee. I'm glad you appreciated the review.