Judge Clark Douglas is a giant chicken just waiting to get plucked.
Our reviews of Scarface (1983) (published November 17th, 2003), Scarface (1983) Platinum Edition (published October 24th, 2006), Scarface (1932) (published November 16th, 2007), and Universal 100th Anniversary Collection (Blu-ray) (published November 26th, 2012) are also available.
He loved The American Dream. With a vengeance.
"I always tell the truth. Even when I lie."
Facts of the Case
Tony Montana (Al Pacino, The Godfather) is a Cuban refugee with a rough history who has just arrived in the United States. After aiding some local authority figures (officially recognized and otherwise) in the assassination of a former Communist leader, Tony is granted a green card and is given a chance to start a new life in Florida. Tony and his pal Manny Ribera (Steven Bauer, Raising Cain) initially get jobs working at a low-rent food stand, but Tony isn't content to merely lead an ordinary, low-income existence. He's hungry for more, and he'll do whatever it takes to attain the money and power he so desperately craves.
Soon, Tony finds himself working as the right-hand man of local crime boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia, Prizzi's Honor) and earning an impressive income in the process. Alas, this does little to sate Tony's desire, as he soon finds himself pursuing Frank's beautiful girlfriend (Michelle Pfeiffer, Batman Returns) and boldly entering into risky business arrangements. Once Tony makes it to the top, how long will he be able to prevent his empire from collapsing?
Though Brian De Palma's Scarface was once regarded by many as an overlong, unnecessarily gratuitous mess of a gangster movie (De Palma even earned a Razzie nomination for Worst Director) featuring a preposterously over-the-top Al Pacino performance, it gradually became accepted as an iconic piece of American pop culture. Today, its influence can be seen everywhere in both the world of entertainment (as elements of the film have been liberally sprinkled throughout numerous subsequent films, television shows and musical endeavors) and merchandising (surely we've all seen at least a few people sporting a Tony Montana t-shirt at some point).
What is it that has given Scarface such longevity and relevance? Entire books could be written on the subject, and they have been. It is as much a Great American Film as Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby or Melville's Moby Dick are Great American Novels; an exhaustively in-depth portrait of a specific person, place and time that simultaneously serves as an exploration of something much larger. There is no one in the world quite like Tony Montana, and yet so many have seen something so familiar in him. It is the deadly siren song of the American dream writ large; a complex yet succinct assessment of what capitalism is really all about (who can forget Mr. Montana's two-word summary of the matter?).
As director Eli Roth suggests in the new featurette "The Scarface Phenomenon," the film really does represent a perfect storm of three immensely talented individuals: Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone and Al Pacino. These gentleman are rarely accused of subtlety, but they are forces to be reckoned with when they are on top of their game. Seeing Stone's sledgehammer-like approach to a screenplay in De Palma's hands is something marvelous to behold; the latter has a way of sharpening the thrills and muting the pretentiousness of the former's potent sermonizing. Thematically the film seems to foreshadow several of Stone's more topical outings (Wall Street in particular offers a white collar variation on many of these ideas), but the film has the unmistakable look and feel of a De Palma picture.
So much has been written about Pacino's performance, but that's only natural: the whole affair would collapse without the conviction of his work. Though the supporting cast is uniformly solid and the film boasts many technical merits, so much of the film's failure or success is placed on Pacino's shoulders. It's important to recall that Pacino hadn't yet developed a reputation as a bombastically colorful actor in 1983 (courtroom shouting in …And Justice For All aside). It's the sort of performance that would surely be counted as one of cinema's most spectacular misfires if it didn't work, but it doesn't take long at all before Pacino disappears completely and we only see Tony. He's equally compelling as the lusty fireball of the first half, the embittered, malevolent villain of the second and as the raging monster of the finale; commanding our attention at all times no matter who he shares the screen with.
It's clear that Scarface is intended as a cautionary tale, yet Tony Montana has been embraced as something of a pop culture hero in so many circles. His rise to power, startling bravado, fabulous wealth and even his ill-fated machine gun shootout are widely celebrated (though the image we often see on t-shirts is that of Tony mowing down his enemies with a machine gun; not lying facedown in a fountain moments later). For years, I simply assumed that many fans of the film were simply ignoring the deeply sad, painful parts of Tony's life (not to mention his death). After repeat viewings, I can't help but wonder if those fans are not ignoring those parts but simply accepting them. How many gang members really expect to live into middle age and beyond? Tony certainly doesn't see longevity as any form of victory: "You're fifty. You got a bag for a belly. You got tits, you need a bra; they got hair on 'em. You got a liver, it's got spots on it, and you're eating this #$%&@!# $#!% and looking like these rich #@$%&!* mummies in here. Is this what it's about? Is this what I work for?" Sadly, the Tony Montana notion of success seems legitimately more appealing to many in the modern world. Get rich or die trying. Get rich and die, anyway. It's better than working in a fast food stand for the rest of your life. The film does not endorse this point-of-view, but it's ahead of its time in its understanding of that perspective.
Scarface arrives on Blu-ray sporting a transfer that isn't perfect, but that does indeed represent a significant upgrade from the standard-def presentation. This has never been a great-looking film, and there are quite a few scenes loaded with heavy grain and noticeable softness. Brighter scenes tend to look pretty sharp and boast stronger detail, while darker scenes are occasionally afflicted by minor black crush and traces of DNR. It's not quite the masterful restoration many may have been hoping for, but it gets the job done well enough and should prove satisfying to the majority of viewers. Audio is stronger, though it still falls into the "good but not great" category. The more explosive sequences pack a rather impressive punch and boast far more clarity than most action sequences of the era. However, there are a few dialogue scenes which sound a little muffled. The level of immersiveness varies a bit, but the busier scenes generally manage to provide a satisfying surround sound experience. I'm satisfied by what this disc has to offer in the technical department, even if I'm not quite overwhelmed.
The new supplemental material ranges from fantastic to unnecessary. The coolest supplement of this collection is a second disc containing Howard Hawks' 1932 version of Scarface on DVD. It's a terrific companion piece to De Palma's remake, and those unfamiliar with the original may be surprised to discover just how many elements of the new version were cribbed from Hawks' film (the tense showdown between the lead character and his boss, "The World is Yours" and the somewhat incestuous jealousy, for starters). It's a much leaner version of the tale (at 93 minutes, it's just over half the length of De Palma's version), but is a rewarding watch well worth checking out (there are quite a few who feel it's the superior version, though I wouldn't count myself as one of those).
Elsewhere, we have a new picture-in-picture track that offers a variety of interviews, scene-by-scene comparisons with the original Scarface and other goodies. It's rather enjoyable, but there's a whole lot of overlap with the other supplements. I'd recommend either watching all of the other featurettes or watching this track, as going through both will prove pretty redundant. Also available is a "Scarface Scorecard" which counts the f-words and bullets used in the movie. I found this fairly useless, but others may enjoy it. You also get a new 39-minute featurette entitled "The Scarface Phenomenon," which features interviews with cast & crew members, authors, admiring filmmakers and even musicians commenting on the film's remarkable influence. It's clip-heavy and sometimes a little cheesy, but worth a look. In addition, you receive a set of ten rather handsome collectible cards (most of which bear Tony Montana's image). The remainder of the featurettes were included on previous DVD releases: "The World of Tony Montana," "The Rebirth," "The Acting," "The Creating," "The TV Version" and "The Making of Scarface: The Videogame." Finally, you get some deleted scenes, My Scenes, BD-Live, Pocket Blu, D-Box compatibility and digital copy. As Blu-ray release go, this one's about as Blu-ray-ish as they come.
Love it or loathe it, there's no denying that Scarface is one of the most significant films of the 1980s. It remains a hypnotic, impassioned, and startlingly entertaining experience. This Blu-ray release is well worth picking up.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Bonus Film
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.