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Cocaine: The drug gives inspired filmmakers a licence to drive well over the speed limit

Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface.


Things do, in fact, go better with coke, provided you're talking about movies. And when it comes to gangster movies, cocaine is the best thing to happen since machine guns, black sedans and sound technology.

Take Scarface as a case in point. In its first incarnation, directed by Howard Hawks in 1932, Paul Muni's Capone-inspired bad guy Tony Camonte is a nasty piece of work. He's got ambition to burn, and his own sense of grandiosity ultimately leads not only to the death of all his friends and loved ones, but Tony himself. There's a lesson in that.

So far, classical gangster rise-and-fall stuff. Now let's shift forward to Brian De Palma's Scarface, which re-sets the same story to Reagan-era Miami. Tony – here renamed Montana – is again an overachieving thug, ready to sacrifice anyone who stands between him and underworld supremacy. But this Tony isn't just a nasty piece of work, he's a full-on psycho who makes you wonder just who he's going to kill (and how) in every scene he appears in.

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While the first Scarface is justly revered in learned cinephiliac circles as a key gangster movie, De Palma's remake, scripted by Oliver Stone, is an object of enduring global cult obsession that has generated countless posters, T-shirts, action figures, re-releases and even a kind of shorthand pop-cultural lingua franca.

I doubt there's a country in the world where somebody doesn't do Al Pacino's Tony Montana in full, armed-to-the-teeth, blow-blown fury: "Say hello to my leee-tle friend!"

The difference, of course, is coke. What this substance, which you'll recall Don Vito Corleone scorned and shunned to his near-fatal peril in The Godfather, brings to the genre is an acceleration of the gangster's sense of invincibility: With a snootful of the Bolivian marching powder, the bad guy isn't just convinced he can do anything, he believes what he reads – just as Tony does in both Scarfaces – flashing in neon outside his penthouse window: "The world is yours!" It is in this conviction that lies not only his danger – coke having obliterated whatever hesitation he might have to kill – but our certainty a final blaze of vainglory is creeping slowly, machine guns in hand, up the stairs.

After De Palma's pharmaceutical amping-up in '82, the blow blew through movies with a vengeance, and it almost immediately acquired a jolting symbolic potency: When you saw it taken by, say, Ray Liotta in Scorsese's Goodfellas, Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, Johnny Depp in Blow, Christian Bale in American Psycho, you just knew things were going to get ugly. And that's exactly what we came for.

It remains the ultimate narcotic in terms of bad movie behaviour. Where pot is good for laughs and heroin stands for certain death, coke works its insidious magic by first seducing users into a feeling of bullet-proof euphoria then leaving them dangling on its hook. Plus it provides more inspired filmmakers – like Scorsese, for instance – with a licence to drive well over the speed limit. Most importantly, where such fuel-injected stimulant variations as crack and methamphetamine render the user almost immediately abject and addicted, coke takes its time, the better to fool the gangster into thinking there's no fall beyond the rise.

Blow by blow: The five best cocaine movies

Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983): The Citizen Kane of coke films.

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Blow(Ted Demme, 2001): Johnny Depp, the 1970s and pile upon pile of coke. True story, too.

Goodfellas(Martin Scorsese, 1990): No director has captured the sheer adrenalized euphoria of the drug better than avowed former user Martin Scorsese.

Bad Lieutenant(Abel Ferrera, 1992): Okay, so Harvey Keitel uses crack more than coke, but he uses coke just to get to work in the morning. What will it be for lunch?

Boogie Nights(Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997): Being a coke-addicted porn star in the 1970s was actually a lot of fun, but you had to be there. This movie takes us there.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Geoff More


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