Two decades ago, critics said hello to “Scarface” with all the warmth that Al Pacino, playing Tony Montana, the Cuban-born cocaine sultan of the film’s title, dispatched disloyal associates and would-be assassins. The film also sagged at the box office and seemed destined to become a relic of the early 1980s, memorable chiefly for its innovative leisure suits, colorfully foul dialogue and gory illustration of the dangers of bringing a chainsaw into the shower. But as the provocative 20th anniversary “Scarface” disc makes clear, director Brian De Palma’s cinematic opera of excess — and Pacino’s rendering of the rise and fall of a flamboyantly violent, coke-bleary drug lord — has enjoyed a long, influential after-life in hip-hop culture.
In the documentary “Def Jam Presents: Origins of a Hip Hop Classic,” one of five featurettes included on the two disc set, artists from Snoop Dogg to the rapper Scarface describe Montana with awe. Sean “Puffy” Combs admits to watching the movie 63 times. Tony Montana was the outlaw who shot and cursed his way from gutter to mansion. In L.A., New York and other cities, Montana’s many denizens studied the master’s style and memorized his law-of-the-street musings. “Scarface” became a bona-fide “ghetto classsic.”
De Palma’s film updated Howard Hawks’ 1932 “Scarface,” which was written by Ben Hecht. In a series of often insightful interviews included on the DVD, De Palma, Pacino, producer Martin Bergman and writer Oliver Stone discuss the rich history behind the film. De Palma and Bergman had to shoot in L.A. after getting run out of Miami by an offended Cuban ex-pat community. Later, they fought a pitched battle to avoid an X rating.
Pacino tells how he fleshed out Montana’s character and now legendary accent, while Stone details a trip to South America, where he did screenplay research by snorting white powder with local drug dealers. One tense night, the men grew suspicious that Stone was a narc. “I got back in touch with the fear I had felt in Vietnam,” Stone remembers, adding that he wanted to infuse “Scarface” with that same sense of fear and unpredictability. Naturally, to capture that spirit, Stone wrote the script in Paris.
After the movie’s release, Stone recalls riding the New York subways and overhearing people quoting Pacino’s lines. “I knew that it had hit a nerve,” he said.
While the movie often veers into camp — Giorgio Moroder’s cheesy score lacks only ham and a baguette — the digitally re-mastered picture and sound do justice to DePalma’s deliciously ornate camerawork and to his skilled actors — Michelle Pfeiffer, F. Murray Abraham, Steven Bauer — who chew on and spit out one-liners and monologues before, during and after machine gun battles.
DVD extras also include (mercifully) deleted scenes and an amusing short with clips of a sanitized version of Montana’s exploits shown on television. In one memorable transformation, Pacino brags: “This town is like a great big chicken waiting to be plucked.” The real Scarface would blush.