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The healing of 'Scarface'

Twenty years ago, critics thrashed Brian De Palma's immigrant saga. Now it's embraced by hip-hop fans.

September 17, 2003|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

WHEN "Scarface" came out 20 years ago, Brian De Palma's outlaw immigrant saga was greeted with scathing reviews ("one of the largest empty vessels to float on an ocean of celluloid," wrote the Los Angeles Times' Sheila Benson) and lukewarm box office. The picture was considered one of the lesser lights in the director's canon of works, which included "Carrie," "Blow Out" and "Dressed to Kill."

It's all the more surprising, therefore, that, in the intervening decades, "Scarface" has emerged as an iconic film on the urban landscape, particularly in the hip-hop community. So big is its afterlife that Universal Pictures and its specialty unit Focus Features are re-releasing the film in movie theaters in Los Angeles and nine other cities on Friday. The move is timed to the Sept. 30 release of a new, digitally re-mastered DVD that has drawn advance orders of more than 2 million units -- surpassing every title in the studio's library, which encompasses "Jaws," "Jurassic Park," "Back to the Future" and "E.T."

Exaggerated, almost operatic in feel, the story follows Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a former prisoner who arrives in Miami in 1980 as part of the Cuban boat lift. Unable to make it legitimately, he and his friend Manny (Steven Bauer) start selling drugs, becoming kingpins in the cocaine trade. The search for respect and power ends tragically, derailed by Scarface's enemies and growing paranoia.

The film's anti-establishment rags-to-riches story and unsentimental message struck a chord with a young audience, the filmmakers and social critics say. Many have seen it dozens of times and can recite Oliver Stone's dialogue ("Say goodnight to the bad guy," "Say 'ello to my little friend," "I always tell the truth, even when I lie") verbatim.

"Montana is an antihero with whom contemporary kids can identify," says De Palma, who, nevertheless, shot down a proposal to replace Giorgio Moroder's period music with an original hip-hop soundtrack. "He's about greed, power and self-destruction in the land of opportunity, capitalism unfettered by morality, which they see all around them. The movie has become the 'On the Waterfront' of this generation -- and Pacino is their [Marlon] Brando."

References abound. The Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal called his clothing line "The World is Mine," a play on one of the film's best-known lines. Host George Lopez impersonated the enunciation-challenged Montana at the 2003 Latin Grammy Awards. Blink 182, a pop-punk band, took its name from the number of times that Pacino's character uttered a certain curse word. And the Geto Boys' Brad Jordon, who adopted the handle "Scarface," is featured on a CD of songs inspired by the movie (e.g. Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ten Crack Commandments," NWA's "Dope Man," Jay-Z's "Streets Is Watching" and Ice Cube's "A Bird in the Hand") released Tuesday by Def Jam Records.

Jenna Coley, 22, tends bar at a Detroit club where the ripples of the movie are strong. For drug dealers, Montana is a role model, she says, and, for the rest, he's a source of hope. "Though we were young when it came out, everyone I know has bought the cassette or taped it on video," she says. "While 'The Godfather' is about family, being born to that life, 'Scarface' is more of today. Tony created something on his own and is all about loyalty and honor -- Mafia ethics. It's one of our two or three favorite films, a portrait of the American dream."

Whether the video hit, which also features memorable performances by a young Michelle Pfeiffer and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, would hold up on the big screen was in question, however. Not until July, when screenings were held in New York and Los Angeles, were the doubts put to rest. The response from a primarily young recruited audience, 50% white, 25% Latino and 25% African American, far exceeded expectations. In particular, fans lapped up scenes of the cartoonish protagonist living the high life -- in every way, such as watching a white-nosed Montana slump into a pile of his powder, which was both tragic and comic relief.

"Scarface" clearly withstood the test of time, observes Craig Kornblau, president of Universal's home video division. "People [at the screening] were hooting and hollering, clapping and screaming -- and half of them, we learned afterward in the focus group, had never seen it before in a theater."

Protests in Miami

Though he used the same title as the 1932 Howard Hawks' gangster film, De Palma actually visualized "Scarface" as John Huston's "Treasure of Sierra Madre" with cocaine substituted for gold. It got off to an inauspicious start: The violent and expletive-filled epic was greeted with protests and derision by Miami's Cuban community, which disliked its portrayal, and given an "X" rating (since replaced by the NC-17) by the Motion Picture Assn. of America's rating board. Bringing in three psychiatrists and a narcotics squad officer to testify in their behalf, the filmmakers eventually landed the more commercial "R."

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