One of the most powerful moments in Scarface is the culmination of a violent, perfectly judged sequence of events crafted for maximum impact by screenwriter Oliver Stone and staged with ferocious efficiency by director Brian De Palma. It takes place at the end of a night when Al Pacino’s Cuban gangster, a feisty little hard-on named Tony Montana, has survived an attempt on his life that left him with a bullet in his shoulder. He has overseen the execution of his boss, who was behind the hit. He has shot dead a corrupt cop who was extorting his cash and favours. And he has just been upstairs to collect from between satin sheets his boss’s woman, a sleek blonde dressed in white who is his prize. The camera zooms out from a medium close-up on Pacino’s face as, still bleeding, arm in a sling, exhaustion writ large across his face, Tony Montana peers through 20-foot-tall glass windows, staring dumbly into a Giorgio Moroder sunrise as an advertising blimp floats over the water, its pithy slogan an empty promise of greatness yet to come: “The World Is Yours….”
The genius of Clint Eastwood is evident in the fact that nobody else could get away with this. Gran Torino is by most measures a pathetically undercooked melodrama, relying on stock characters, trite dialogue, and a lot of awkward performances by untrained amateurs and unseasoned pros. The backdrop of tradition-rich Hmong families struggling to adapt to the American midwest without losing both their culture and their souls is the kind of social conflict that could drive any generic indie picture, and Eastwood himself plays the kind of character whose arc can be described in a half-dozen words: crotchety coot gets heart of gold. Eastwood doesn’t even turn in an especially adept performance from a technical standpoint, although I guess he never really does. He hasn’t much range. Despite that, he’s one of the greatest stars in contemporary cinema — a laconic, iconic presence who’s come to represent both artisanal and populist impulses in American film, to simultaneously articulate conservative and liberal ideals, to split the difference between the gruff misanthrope and the sensitive man of letters. That’s how, even when he’s thrown a slow, wonky pitch like Gran Torino, he manages to pretty well knock the ball out into the bleachers just the same. The guy heading into the theater to clean up cups and popcorn bags nodded at me as I left and muttered, “Clint was robbed by the Academy, right?” That’s star power.