How Brian De Palma's film is getting a new life on DVD and in a videogame

By Ken Tucker
October 20, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
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”Every day is a Scarface day,” says Steven Bauer on the phone from — where else? — Miami, the setting for the 1983 Brian De Palma gangster epic starring Al Pacino as Tony ”Scarface” Montana. The Cuban actor played Tony’s best pal, Manolo. ”I live near where we shot the [movie’s] street scenes,” and people come up to him and say, ”’Whoa — you’re Manolo! You’ve been exercising — you have more muscle!”’ The 49-year-old actor chuckles. ”A nice way of saying I’ve put on some weight.”

Speaking of weight, Scarface still carries a lot of it, cross-cultural and multimedia:

A two-disc Scarface: Platinum Edition has just been released with remixed sound effects that boost the volume on the film’s relentless rat-a-tat-tat violence: Its press release refers to it as the ”BIGGER GUNS, BIGGER EXPLOSIONS, BIGGER SOUNDS” edition. It also offers an optional ”F-bomb” feature: Click on it and it counts how many times the notoriously profane film uses the word f—-. (Hint: It’s well over 100.)

There’s now a videogame, Scarface: The World Is Yours (Vivendi/Sierra), featuring a what-if-Tony-didn’t-die scenario conceived by screenwriter Dave McKenna (American History X) . ”I wrote 40 hours’ worth of dialogue,” says McKenna, ”because you have to write for every possible situation the gamer moves Tony into: If he walks into this room, he talks to his lawyer; if he walks outside, he talks to a babe at the pool. It’s basically how many different ways can I invent to have him tell people to f—- off.” Although Pacino declined to record new dialogue, a surreally diverse voice cast includes Bauer and a posse who didn’t appear in the movie: James Woods, Wilmer Valderrama, Bai Ling, Tommy Lee, Desperate Housewives ghost voice Brenda Strong, and the semi-reunited Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong (they recorded separately).

It wouldn’t be a fad without a ringtone: On, you can download wallpaper images and famous lines from the film like ”Say hello to my leettle friend!”

Want to be Scarface this month? There’s a $49.95-retailing Halloween costume consisting of a white disco-era suit, a red wide-collar shirt, and a machine gun (the package notes that the gat is ”not available in some states”: One supposes you then trick-or-treat saying, ”Say hello to my leettle thumb-and-forefinger pointing!”).

Go on and you can see versions of a clever idea: the entire movie recut so that the only word spoken is f—-. You can easily follow the entire plot over the course of just a few minutes.

The hip-hop world’s embrace of Scarface continues unabated: There’s the Houston rapper called Scarface; the DVD documentary extra interviews everyone from Diddy to Snoop Dogg about the wisdom of the Scarface philosophy (”Don’t get high on your own supply,” etc.). On his recent album Fishscale, Ghostface raps about ”cooking that raw powder white/Get your sniff on, Scarface n—–z, we getting right.” Scarface homages proliferate.

The big question: Why, 23 years after its release, does this movie about the rise and fall of a cocaine overlord resonate throughout pop culture?

Even an old white dude like Scarface producer Martin Bregman gets it. The 75-year-old Hollywood vet says it’s a fable for good capitalism: ”If you go into the hip-hop world — you know what ‘coming up’ means? Coming from nothing. Which, let’s face it, most of the people in this country come from nothing. We weren’t all blessed with rich fathers.”

Robert Loggia, who played Frank Lopez, Tony’s cocaine-running first employer, murdered by Tony for this largesse, reminds us that this was also the first big dramatic role for Michelle Pfeiffer, who played the romantic lead, Elvira. Was she nervous acting opposite Pacino and an old pro such as himself? ”No. When she came down that elevator [in Elvira’s first scene] in that goddamn tight dress and slinked across to us, and the way [Elvira] sniffed coke off her pinky fingernail…” Loggia pauses to laugh, then barks, ”For Christ’s sake, Michelle owned it! They were lucky to have her; they should kiss her ass in Macy’s window today!”

In its initial release, Scarface was only a modest success. Pacino was derided for his thick accent. Even De Palma’s champion critic Pauline Kael knocked it as ”a sloppy piece of moviemaking,” and Scarface screenwriter Oliver Stone, when asked about the film’s initial X rating for violence and bad language, said, ”It was even more than that…. I was in L.A. at the time [of its release and saw] the revulsion of so many people inside the industry toward it. Like, ‘This was a horrible thing to do to our industry.”’ But Bregman says this attitude was hypocritical: ”I would go to house parties of some senior [Hollywood] executives, and as you walked into the lobby, there was a bowl of white powder as you entered. Cocaine was a big thing [in Hollywood] then.”

But after its release, first on VHS and then on DVD, Scarface‘s moments of terror (remember the drug dealer who chops up Tony’s friend in a shower stall?), humor (remember Bauer’s Manolo teaching Tony the, uh, fine points of pleasuring a woman?), and philosophy (Loggia growls Frank’s ”lesson number one: ‘Never underestimate the greed of the other guy!”’) all combined to create an iridescent social phenomenon that inspired, entertained, and repulsed millions of people, with new generations discovering it and remaking Scarface in their own images, to suit their own purposes, every decade or so.

Bregman goes further: ”I think it’s a better film than Star Wars. It’s about something. [It has] a moral code. We were shocked by the negative reaction. We did not get a good review, not one. The critics did not get the movie; the audience got the movie, young people got it. If you mention Scarface to somebody, they say, ‘Oh, that’s a great movie.’ Boy, that didn’t happen then.”

Now, even your cell phone can remind you that you have a leettle friend in Scarface.

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