Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone’s reimagining of Howard Hawks’ prohibition-era gangster epic replaces the grime of old Chicago with the neon glitz and kitschy glow of 1980’s Miami and sets the scene for one of the most unique gangster movies of them all. Drop Al Pacino into the lead role of Cuban exile come narcotics trafficking kingpin and you can add “most explosive” to that accolade too. Pacino inhabits the gnarly skin of Tony Montero like few actors could or have as he steels the screen with his presence. An unpredictable concoction of balls to the wall attitude and psychopathic viciousness that bubbles to the boil around five minutes in and continues that way until the movie’s gargantuan close. Though everyone else falls in his frothing wake, there’s a lot of fun in their performances from Tony’s partner and incorrigible ladies-man Steven Bauer, to his reluctant self-hating wife Michelle Pfeiffer, to Robert Loggia’s weak-willed mob boss desperately trying to keep his insanely ambitious young charge on a leash.
Much has been made of this remake’s audacious production design and it’s usually this aspect that most detractors set their sights on. But regardless of criticism, there’s no denying that Scarface is its own film. Moreover, the truth is that, alongside Giorgio Moroder’s amusingly profound score, De Palma’s vision goes so far beyond cheesy that the movie exists in a fascinating kind of hyper-real haze of meta-gangsterism. And as is the case with every one of that director’s 1980’s movies, that’s exactly the point! Scarface isn’t a straight gangster narrative even though its works brilliantly as such, nor is it an action film even though its littered with sublimely staged (not to mention rather grisly) set-pieces that dwarf most of that decade’s best. Scarface is a twisted fairytale of greed and ambition funnelled through the intense personality of one of cinema’s most powerful actors at the height of his powers. Through this vessel, Stone’s crazy but endlessly quotable dialogue bristles with the megalomanic intention of a coke-fuelled tyrant and again, like all De Palma’s movies from around that time, it thus becomes a statement on the state of contemporary cinema itself. That it’s a riveting blast to experience just makes it all the more remarkable.
Corporate whistle-blower dramas are generally done quite well in Hollywood but this powerful adaptation of the Vanity Fair article is top of the heap. Russell Crowe is excellent as the former tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand who breaks his confidentiality agreement by doing an interview with 60 minutes. Al Pacino is just as good as the news show’s producer Lowell Bergman who initially recruits Wigand but inevitably becomes his devoted protector. Mann’s dialogue has always had the ability to strip away any superfluous emotion from his central characters to reveal their underlying obsession (usually with their profession). Though the characters in The Insider are just as driven, Mann’s screenplay and particularly his ability as a director to catch the actors’ more idiosyncratic glances or twitches (as if by accident) gives the characters in this film a real depth of emotion that combined with the superb acting (from all parties) imbues the proceedings with a pervasive sense of authenticity. What more could you want from a true story?
Rating: The Good – 77.8 Genre: Crime Duration: 102 mins Director: William Friedkin Stars: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen
William Friedkin’s deeply psychological thriller about an undercover cop attempting to draw out a serial killer who operates in the homosexual sub-culture of S&M/leather is a bold piece of cinema and an enthralling watch. Al Pacino stars as the cop in question who spends his days and nights attempting to understand and infiltrate the closed community so that he can figure out who in this world of exhibitionism and hyper liberation he is looking for. The well timed yet fleeting interleaving of Paul Sorvino as his boss and Karen Allen as his girlfriend do enough to keep him grounded in his former life but each time he goes back undercover, he loses a bit of himself. Pacino is brilliant and captures his character’s transformation with an understated naturalness. His performance is just another example of how brave and actor he has always been and one who sees acting first and foremost as an exploration.
Cruising caused controversy among some in the gay community on its release and in truth, the film not only seems streaked with danger, it seems to feed off it. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Friedkin did here but everything about Cruising, from the subject matter, to the dialogue, to the way it was shot and edited seems so far removed from mainstream cinema that it becomes almost the perfect case of form following function. Yet Friedkin is in total control. No matter how deep his characters psychologically descend and no matter how unconventional his central device is, he knows exactly how to make a story out of it. Thus, in the same way in which Pacino is experimenting, Friedkin is too. The ending might not be to everyone’s satisfaction but within the counter-intuitive parameters Friedkin set the story, it’s a genuine success, and extremely effective.
Rating: The Good – 68.4 Genre: Thriller Duration: 118 mins Director: Christopher Nolan Screenplay: Hillary Seitz Stars: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank
Al Pacino is excellent as a LA detective sent up to Alaska to aid an investigation into the murder of a teenage girl. While there he accidentally shoots his partner who he was at odds with over their involvement in a corruption investigation and fearing he might be charged with purposefully killing his partner he blames the shooting on the suspect in the murder case (Robin Williams). Insomnia tells a complicated story and it’s handled very capably by Christopher Nolan and Pacino in the lead. Like other films have done so successfully before them, they make the location a central element to the story’s atmosphere: in this case Pacino’s character is prevented from sleeping due to the month of daylight the town is experiencing at that time. Thus, as he attempts to simultaneously deal with his feelings of guilt yet stay one step ahead of the local police and the killer who soon begins blackmailing him, we see him becoming increasingly distraught and unwound. This is a terrific performance from Pacino and one that harks back to his earlier days when scripts of this caliber were the norm as opposed to the exception.
Rating: The Good – 74.8 Genre: Gangster Duration: 144 mins Director: Brian De Palma Stars: Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Anne Miller
One of Brian De Palma’s most stylistic films, Carlito’s Way tells the story of Puerto Rican hood Carlito Brigante as he attempts to escape a life of crime only for his friend Davy Kleinfeld to land him back in the middle of some nasty business. Al Pacino is excellent as the charismatic Carlito and it’s to Pacino’s credit that he chose yet another ethnic minority gangster to play rather than playing a series of Italian-American mafiosos. On the other hand, Sean Penn not only holds his own against the Titan that is Pacino but in many ways steals the show. That said, Carlito and the film in general would’ve been far more compelling if Penelope Anne Miller’s annoying character and love-story side line were dispensed with outright. De Palma gives his usual master class in the art of capturing great production design on screen and his action choreography particularly in that Grand Central chase sequence is as full of grace and electric energy as any before it or since. The characters are a little (OK, a lot) stereotyped and the side story is nonsense but for the most part Carlito’s Way is very good gangster film.
Rating: The Good – 72.4 Genre: Sporting Drama Duration: 162 mins Director: Oliver Stone Stars: Al Pacino, Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx
Oliver Stone changed his directorial style during the making of JFK where the telling of a long-winded complex story benefited from a quick, edit-heavy style. Unfortunately, he imposed this style on every subsequent picture he made whether it warranted it or not. And given that most films do not warrant it and from the point of view of his career, he became a worse director for it. However, Any Given Sunday is exactly the type of project that benefits from this style and so his penchant and genuine skill in putting large scale stories to film elevates what could’ve been a disaster into a thoroughly engaging and riveting tale of a franchise American football team struggling to reach the highs of its recent past by overcoming the egos of players and management alike. Granted, if you’re into sports, Any Given Sunday will be all the more enjoyable but being as it is, full of acting heavy weights you typically find attached to a Stone project, this film just plain works even without a love of sports. Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx, and James Woods all do particularly well but this is Al Pacino’s movie from start to finish and there’s that “inches” speech to prove it.
Rating: The Good – 69.7 Genre: Thriller Duration: 113 mins Director: Harold Becker Stars: Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, John Goodman
Al Pacino’s return from his self imposed (post-Revolution) exile was in this highly effective thriller about a cop who gets romantically involved with a suspect in a series of murders. Pacino’s old colleague Harold Becker handles the drama well and Ellen Barkin (as the suspicious love interest) and John Goodman (as Pacino’s partner) are in great form. For his part, Pacino is superb and reminded us all of what we were missing during those five years of abstentia. Sea of Love is made the way thrillers are meant to be made with a great story, gripping tension, and top actors playing well rounded characters.
Heat is Michael Mann’s epic tale of obsession and discipline that focuses on the adversarial relationship between a perfectionist cop (Al Pacino) and a master thief (Robert De Niro). This was the first film to bring the two greatest actors of their generation together on screen and it’s to Mann’s credit that he keeps their meetings brief and few, choosing instead to use the charisma of the two leads to drive their own sides to the story until the inevitable showdown. Heat is an expansive film involving a number of dramatic subplots that are skillfully interwoven into the wider story. It is also Mann’s most stylistic film. His trademark grading and wide-sweeping night-time cityscape shots provide the perfect backdrop to the methodical and exacting behaviour of the police and criminals alike. The immaculate editing and that quietly brilliant Elliot Goldenthal score are as good as you’ll get in any film. The action has rarely been equalled let alone bettered and the now famous street battle remains the most powerfully realistic yet elegantly co-ordinated action sequence ever committed to celluloid (rumour has it that it’s shown in military academies as a text-book example of how to execute an ordered retreat while taking fire).
And then, of course, there’s the cast. Replete with most of Mann’s regulars and led by two of cinema’s icons, they are invariably excellent ensuring that this compelling tale is populated with the most fascinating yet believable of characters. It has become increasingly popular in recent times to criticise Pacino’s highly charged turn as the obsessed cop but those critics would do well to spot the telltale signs of a cocaine addict in that role, a job admittedly made more difficult by the fact that Mann elected to remove any explicit reference to that fact in post production. When taken into consideration, it becomes a performance of serious consequence and alongside De Niro’s equally impressive turn in the more low-key role and under the direction of the great Mann, it helps Heat become the slickest and coolest crime thriller ever made and one that you’ll never get tired of watching.
Rating: The Good – 85.4 Genre: Crime Duration: 130 mins Director: Sidney Lumet Stars: Al Pacino, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe
There are many great things that can be said about this film but most important is that Al Pacino’s portrayal of Frank Serpico, a real life NYPD police officer who exposed the endemic corruption in his department, is one of the truly brilliant cinematic turns. Few actors can say so much with their eyes as Pacino can and as the film opens we zone right in on them. From that point on, we belong to Pacino and to almost an equal extent his greatest collaborator, the legendary Sidney Lumet whose iron hand in a velvet glove unerringly carries the slow burning story through to its 130th minute.
Serpico’s tale is an extraordinary one even in these more cynical times. That such a prestigious and massive police department could be running such systematic rackets was scarcely believable and that Serpico continually put himself on the line by refusing to take any money was just as movie-worthy. In retrospect, it seems as if nobody else could’ve conveyed the proper depths to this man as Pacino did. As he did in The Godfather, he shows us how an innocent and somewhat naive young man can be turned into a harshly cynical individual through circumstance. Perhaps his most significant achievement is how he portrayed the increasing fear that Serpico was living with from day to day and the eroding effect that had on not just the detective’s personality but his spirit. It’s an intuitive but awesomely contemplative piece of acting from one cinema’s greatest ever performers and it shows in depth the subtle power that he yielded in his heyday. Ever confident in Pacino’s ability to hold court, Lumet raises the stakes by populating the supporting cast with some real talent with John Randolph, Tony Roberts, and Jack Kehoe contributing strongly.
Serpico is one of those 70’s crime classics that screams pedigree. Like many of those classics, it captures the feelings and tones of the time and place in which it is set wonderfully. Lumet’s ability to get the the heart of his environment is at its most finely honed here and of all his films, Serpico is probably his most starkly beautiful. But within that, there’s everything else you could want from a crime classic too. There’s gritty action, there’s full-tilt drama, and there’s a compelling tension held throughout. And to put a real crown on things, there’s also Mikis Theodorakis’ heart-rendering score which on its own seems to tell the magnificent but lonely story of one brave man against the odds.
Francis Ford Coppola’s follow-up to the seminal The Godfather is generally regarded not simply as the best sequel of all time but one of the best films of all time. The linear format of the first story is relinquished in favour of two interwoven tales. One focuses on Michael (Al Pacino) as he continues to lose the battle for his soul while the other tells the the tale of how a young Vito (played by Robert De Niro) managed to rise to the rank of Don Corleone during his early years in the US.
The Godfather Part II differs from the original in many distinct ways beyond the obvious format changes. The themes explored are much darker as Michael Corleone’s arc is replaced by a straight line of descent. While many authors would’ve been tempted to turn him into another Vito, it’s a sign of genuine integrity that Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola remained loyal to the character’s original complexities and charted an uncomfortably believable journey. Pacino has less range to play with, given that he was no longer juggling a contrasting character shift but he does have some murky depths to plum and he responds in astonishing fashion turning in one of the most intense performances we’ve ever seen on screen. De Niro rightly got much plaudits for his uncanny depiction of a young Brando but the more weighty and arresting acting was done by the former. That said, De Niro is truly magnetic as Vito Corleone in his prime and, as such, he gives the flashback sequences a different energy all together. Through his retro-engineering of Brando’s Vito and some awfully clever writing, these segments are chock full of fascinating clues as to what made Don Corleone the man he was. These sequences are also directed with more verve when they need to be but, during more important moments, they are slowed down to create a breathless tension. The rooftop sequence in particular (like the restaurant scene in The Godfather) is a veritable masterclass in pacing as Coppola lures us into the mind of Vito as he crosses that same threshold Michael was to cross years later in Louis’ restaurant.
The Godfather Part II is as much a masterclass in composition, lighting, framing, and pacing as the original was. The film opens with another gloriously constructed family sequence which Coppola uses to once again outline the various political and personal circumstances of the main players. The Cuban segments in particular stand out not only because they lighten the heavy mood of the Nevada segments and the earlier timeline but because of how Coppola incorporates the political intrigue (both outer and inner) into the wider story of Michael’s search for his hidden enemy. That said, it must be noted that, due to the inevitability of the Corleone family’s trajectory, The Godfather Part II does not maintain that same warmth and sense of connection that the events of the first film took place within. Even during the more unsettling moments of the original, there was always a sense of family and protection surrounding Michael and co. In this film, those securities have been almost completely eroded. Michael’s relationship with Kay (in another brilliant performance from Diane Keaton) withers and, with it, his trust in others begins to falter irrevocably. It’s a powerful piece of writing done justice by the equally impressive acting and directing.
Whether or not The Godfather Part II is better than the original will always be a matter of debate and perhaps more so, preference. What can be said, is that together they easily rank as one of the greatest two-part stories ever told on film. Alone, they are something just as special and equally timeless.
“It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” Francis Ford Coppola’s epic tale of the Corleone crime family’s battle to maintain their position at top of the mob underworld gives us two of the finest acting performances in history and is the peak of cinematic story-telling. The story opens with a lavish wedding which in addition to setting a contrasting tone to the latter half of the film outlines the dynamic of the Corleone family as well as the various political allegiances both of which will define the tensions to follow. This scene also counts as one of the most awesomely written, staged, edited, and shot openings in cinema history and has become a revered masterclass in film-making
With the main players and their relationships established, writers Mario Puzo and Coppola allow both to develop throughout the rest of the film in resonating style resulting in a tragedy of moral corruption as profoundly perceptive as anything we have seen before or since on film. Within the broader battles and strategies of the Corleone organisation’s fight to remain dominant lie the more interesting and richly drawn personal battles as hopes and ambitions are turned on their heads and Michael Corleone is drawn into the world from which his father fought to save him. There are no caricatures here as father and son, brother and brother, husband and wife, and enemy and enemy are turned and twisted against each other which intermittently boil over into one sublime and daring set piece after another. As Vito Corleone Marlon Brando is at his improvisational best and commands every bit of our attention when the camera is on him. It’s one of those rare performances that is so rich and intuitive that every aspect to the character’s personality and demeanor feels real and substantial. On the other hand, Al Pacino gives us the most complete and contemplative performance imaginable. He is nothing short of mesmerising as he transforms before our eyes from the young and innocent war hero to the cold and calculating puppet-master.
Rather than embracing the counter-culture of many of his contemporaries, Coppola tells the story in the classic style of old Hollywood and the result is a Shakespearian masterpiece of pacing and intrigue informed by Nino Rota’s seminal and mesmerising score. Philip Smith’s set decoration, Dean Tavoularis’ overall production design, and Gordon Willis’ cinematography are sumptuous to behold but seductive and engaging enough to comfortably contain a story as broad as the one told here. Coppola’s use of the visual feasts they serve up is truly inspired as he frames the slow and blisteringly fast drama and action with precision and controls their momentum with his trademark ultra-disciplined innovation. And in the scene where Michael meets Sollozzo and McClusky, he gives us perhaps the best example of tension building the medium has ever offered. Sublime indeed.