Scarface Review

The following film review has been taken from Mike Sutton's review of the R2 20th Anniversary SE DVD which much more eloquently reflects my own opinion on the film.

Scarface wants to be an epic drama of Shakespearean proportions about a little man who, in classic style, gains the whole world but loses his soul in the process. If it ultimately fails to reach such heights of grand tragedy, it's a pretty damn good effort helped along by some gorgeously stylish filmmaking and a monumental performance from Al Pacino.

The film is broadly based on the 1932 Howard Hawks film which was set during Prohibition in the 20s. De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone update this to 1980, when President Carter opened the Miami harbour to Cuban refugees. Castro used this as an opportunity to clear his jails of minor-league thugs and assorted political prisoners, and out of the 125,000 people who arrived in Florida, over 25,000 had criminal records. One of these is Tony Montana (Pacino), a small-time hood who dreams of making it big in America, the land of opportunity. The opportunity comes when his friend Manny (Bauer) takes up a contract on a Communist secret policeman who has fallen from grace, in exchange for green cards for the men who carry out the killing. One hit later and Tony and friends are on their way to the big time, hooking up with drug dealing would-be playboy Frank Lopez (Loggia). Tony falls for Lopez's girlfriend, Elvira (Pfeiffer) and falls even harder for Lopez's lifestyle and power. It's only a matter of time before he is rising to the top, double-dealing where necessary and killing anyone who gets in his way. Tony's fatal flaw, however, is revealed when he visits his neglected family - his feelings for his sister, Gina (Mastrantonio) are considerably deeper than simply brotherly affection. Meanwhile, the money is piling up, as is the cocaine, and a terrible price is about to be exacted for Tony's success.

It's the old Mephistophelean bargain again, in other words, but it's given new life through Al Pacino's remarkable performance. From the opening scene where he wisecracks his way through an interrogation to the riveting cimax where he defies his enemies to destroy him, he radiates charisma and that alert intelligence which is the mark of most classic Pacino performances. Tony is a fascinating character in Pacino's hands; he's a foul man in virtually every way, but Pacino redeems him through a humour that emerges now and then and, ultimately, through a sense that Tony is destroyed by the ambition that initially drives him to succeed. Like Macbeth (how's that for impudent comparison ?) Tony exploits his dark side for the sake of power, but is eventually brought down by his own hubris - and in the Tony's final scenes, I'm always reminded of Macbeth's redemption through courage as he goes to certain oblivion at the hands of his enemies. Pacino's physical performance is also interesting, as the initially wired Tony becomes increasingly lethargic and eventually just slumps in front of mountains of cocaine on his desk.

Remakes are a tricky thing. It's hard to renew material without arousing unfavourable comparisons with the original and the only other way would seem to be attempting a complete reproduction - which is what Gus Van Sant did in his ambitious and interesting, but basically pointless version of Psycho. It's made even harder when you're remaking a classic. Philip Kaufman had this trouble with Invasion of the Bodysnatchers but he got away with it by framing it in such terms that one could regard it as much as a sequel as a remake - after all, Kevin McCarthy is still shouting his warnings just like at the end of the original film, and still being ignored. But remaking Howard Hawks is another matter. Hawks is rightfully regarded as one of the all-time Hollywood greats, a director who made more than his fair share of classic movies and Scarface is loved by many people as one of the defining gangster films, along with The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. Personally, I think it's one of Hawks' weaker films but it's still pretty amazing to see what he was managing to do with the relatively new medium of sound cinema back in 1932. However, as De Palma himself has said, his remake is just as much inspired by a film like Huston's Treasure of Sierra Madre, a cynical examination of the failure of the American dream in which Humphrey Bogart played Fred C.Dobbs, another low-life turned anti-hero

Brian De Palma tones down his usual stylistics in favour of a more controlled narrative approach which is centred around Pacino's performance. He works with the brilliant cinematographer John A.Alonzo to create a heated, hyper-intense version of Miami, actually shot in Los Angeles, and allows his actors breathing space to create characters. This is more successful with the men than the women. Steven Bauer makes something genuinely touching out of the naive Manny who is dangerously innocent of Tony's obsessions and Robert Loggia is hilariously smug as Frank Lopez, prone to handing out fatuous paternal advice - "Lesson number one; never underestimate the other guy's greed" - which he fails to follow himself, with disastrous consequences. There are also great bits by Harris Yulin as a self-satisfied cop and F.Murray Abraham as Omar the henchman who looks like a velocipator, but slightly less friendly. The women, unfortunately, tend to be landed with the remnants of the original film. Michelle Pfeiffer is funny and elegant as Elvira, oozing bored decadence from every pore, but she has very little to do apart from bicker with Tony. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, suffering one of the worst hairstyles in film history, tries hard, but the script defeats her since there's only one aspect to her character, and not a very interesting aspect at that.

In fact, the script is the biggest problem with the film. Oliver Stone writes good, snappy dialogue for Tony and the other men - their in-car conversations are a delight - but once the big speeches begin, he seems rather lost. Tony's set-piece rant to a restaurant full of WASPs is one long collection of cliches, saved only by Pacino's delivery, and when Elvira says, "Look what's happened to us", you're reminded of the old dictum that if you want to send a message, you should use Western Union. She spells out the point of the film - that Tony destroys himself and everyone around him - in unnecessary fashion, insulting the intelligence of the audience. Worst of all are the family scenes when Tony returns home to his mother and sister. His mother delivers the sort of poor-but-honest drivel that would have been considered passe back in 1932. As for the incest subplot, the kindest description would be that it is slightly less subtle than it could have been - when Tony has one of his funny turns upon seeing sis with another bloke, the music goes hyper and Pacino gives us the mad, staring eyes. He doesn't actually say, "You touch my seeester gringo and I keeel you," but it's a close-run thing.

What's amazing, and a tribute to his skill as a director, is that despite the script problems, De Palma keeps the film under control with remarkable restraint for this period in his career, and serves the narrative and characters while still throwing in a few irresistable set-pieces in his classic style. Foremost among these is the classic chainsaw sequence - a drug deal goes horribly wrong and ends up as a bloodbath. It's executed so well that only on a second viewing do you realise that De Palma actually shows very little gore and uses angles and editing to get the required effect. There's also a kinetic shoot out in a mirror covered nightclub, featuring two of the most incompetent hit men ever to grace a thriller, and some inspired camerawork - I love the scene with the blimp saying "The World Is Yours", followed by the lingering crane shot away from Tony at the window, since it's beautiful and sad and more eloquent about spiritual desolation than the screenplay.

Scarface is a powerful film with a familiar message. If it fails to be genuinely tragic, that's because we never quite get the sense of Tony having very far to fall - he always seems to stay the same vicious hood he was at the start. Other aspects of the film don't help. The fashions are perfectly accurate for the period but look unfortunately ludicrous - was there ever a worse time for men's clothing - and it's difficult to suppress a giggle when Pacino turns up sporting a collar the size of Bolivia. Worse still is the music score., Giorgio Moroder, erstwhile purveyor of disco-pap for films such as Flashdance, provides a score which is so dated it is, paradoxically, entirely appropriate for 1980. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the power to match the images and ends up sounding inadequate for the emotions it is supposed to be supporting. The only time it's effective is during the opening credits, when it has the right pounding sense of anticipation to go well with the TV news clips of the Cuban exodus.

This film isn't quite the neglected masterpiece that some claim, although time has been very kind to it, but nor is it the piece of trash that most reviewers felt it was on first release. It's well made, well acted piece of cinema which takes a familiar genre and re-defines it for the drug culture of the eighties. As such, it's probably right that it should take its place among the great gangster movies. Whether or not I prefer it to The Untouchables and Carlito's Way depends on mood but I think it has something special and unique which those two films, good as they are, can't quite match.

Presentation

Universal are releasing Scarface on Blu-ray in three different editions, the details of which were listed in our March release announcement. Only the packaging differs between these releases, but only the Blu-ray disc was provided for review purposes, so I will be ignoring the DVD and Digital Copy that are also present in each release.

Presented in the original aspect ratio with a VC-1 encode that has an average bitrate of 19.19Mbps Universal's transfer deserves credit for how pristine it looks: nicks and pops do make an occasional appearance but they are barely noticeable, and grain is heavy but relatively contained considering the era in which the film was shot. The image is satisfyingly sharp and the colour saturation is rich enough to make the sun-kissed California/Florida photography look beautifully vivid. The problem is that the transfer has clearly been a little over-processed, and while I've no doubt that viewers with more modest LCD/Plasma displays will be pleased with the amount of "pop" it has, if you're viewing on a big projection screen then the slightly hard-edged nature of the transfer may not be so endearing. There are two issues: The first is the thin but intense Edge Enhancement halos that plague certain scenes, the other is the high contrast with black levels in particular feeling somewhat crushed to the expense of shadow detail in the film's night-time scenes (although I'm not sure if the detail was ever there to begin with). Compression artefacts are also prevalent, mostly in the vivid red tones, but I suppose that is to be expected given the length of the film. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? I think most people viewing this transfer will think so.

The audio presentation on the film's flagship English DTS-HD MA 7.1 track pretty much matches the video presentation, ie: An impressively cleaned up sound that is also let down by completely needless over-processing, which in this case comes in the form of some ridiculously excessive foley gunfire. When Tony guns down the Columbian drug dealer in the open streets of Miami about thirty minutes into the film his handgun sounds like a cannon going off, from then on each action sequence drew me right out of the film every time the gunfire kicked in. If this gunfire is remastered poorly then the same can't be said for the soundtrack, which sounds punchy and fresh, but dialogue tends to be a little too low in the mix: causing some exchanges to sound muffled and background audio hiss to be a little too noticeable. Another issue I feel should be raised given the compression foibles of the transfer is the rather crazy logic of adding a beefy lossless eight-channel audio track to a film that's nearly three hours long and three decades old.

Purists will no doubt gravitate towards the original English DTS 2.0 option, but the fact that the original audio isn't provided in a lossless format probably says everything you need to know about Universal's commitment to the long time fans of this film. This track is rough around the edges: bass is a little hollow, treble a little harsh, and there's a not-insignificant amount of distortion and tear, but it serves the purpose and gunfire is blissfully organic! For my money this was the more agreeable audio option.

Also present on the disc are French DTS 2.0 Mono and Spanish DTS 2.0 Mono audio tracks with optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.


Extras

There's no shortage of documentaries/featurettes on this disc, the problem is that the vast majority have been ported over from the film's various DVD releases, so if you already own and have plundered the R2 20th Anniversary SE DVD, or the U.S Anniversary Edition and Platinum Edition DVDs there's barely anything on this disc that's worth your time. Nevertheless, if you want to skip straight to the content exclusive to this Blu-ray release then look for the text written in blue.

Please Note: All extra features come with optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.

The Scarface Phenomenon (38min:34sec, 1080p AVC, English DTS 2.0)
This is the jewel in the BD crown, a newly produced full-HD documentary that promises to examine the legacy and influences of the film, right? Well, put it this way, if you've ever sat at home wondering what Fox sports Anchorwoman and Good Day L.A. hostess: Jillian Barberie Reynolds thinks of Scarface, then you're going to be well into your element here. OK, I'll admit I'm being a little harsh on this talking-heads piece, because there is some input from a small number of the film's cast & crew (Steve Bauer, Ángel Salazar, Richard Belzer, and regurgitated footage of Martin Bregman and Brian De Palma from the old Making Of Documentary), as well as a number of writers who have written various books on the film, but mostly it is just a bunch of celebrity filmmakers and fans discussing what Scarface means to them. The Scarface Phenomenon is split into three themed "segments" that can be viewed individually or all-at-once, they are: Say Hello To The Bad Guy! (11m:22s), Pushing The Limit (13m:31s), and The World & Everything In It (13m:40s).


Deleted Scenes (22m:29s, 480i AVC, English DTS 2.0)
Straight from the Anniversary DVDs, this 22minute reel consists of fifteen deleted/alternative takes of a number of scenes that were either dropped from the finished film or included in a shorter form, none of which feel like they would have added anything to the film had they been included.

The World of Tony Montana (11m:38s, 480i AVC, English DD 2.0)
Produced for the 2006 U.S. Platinum Edition DVD, this featurette brings together a number of Law Enforcement/DEA experts to discuss the real-life drug cartels and similarities between fact and fiction.

The Rebirth (10m:08s, 480i AVC, English DTS 2.0)
If you're unfamiliar with the release history of Scarface on DVD, then I just need to give you a little background: When Universal first released Scarface on DVD in 1998 (the U.S. Collector's Edition) they produced a 52minute Making Of documentary that consisted mostly of interviews with Martin Bregman, Al Pacino, Oliver Stone, and Brian De Palma, which was later expanded upon by the 2003 U.S. Anniversary Edition with new interview footage (most significantly a discussion with Steven Bauer) and split into three segments entitled: The Rebirth, The Acting, and The Creating, which have been brought over to this Blu-ray release. As the name would imply, The Rebirth discusses how Martin Bregman and co. resurrected the Howard Hawks Prohibition-era gangster film as the operatic rise and fall of a Cuban immigrant turned cocaine Kingpin.

The Acting (15m:05s, 480i AVC, English DTS 2.0)
The performances are analysed here, with an unsurprisingly heavy focus on Pacino's interpretation of Tony Montana and Steven Baur as Manny. Fairly standard stuff, but it's always interesting to hear Pacino discuss his methodology and recollect the work of his co-stars.

The Creating (29m:35s, 480i AVC, English DTS 2.0)
The meat of the Making Of tackles the Cuban-Miami history before lifting the lid on how a number of the film's most iconic sequences were conceived and executed and finally discussing the film's reception and battle to achieve its R rating. If you're unfamiliar with the film's production then this will be the highlight of the disc, but at just under half an hour long you are left wishing for more.

The Making of Scarface: The Video Game (12m:05s, 480i AVC, English DTS 2.0)
I'm pretty sure that this featurette was much more relevant when it was produced and released in the run up to the game's October 2006 release, but four years on I fail to see much point in this beyond perhaps allowing hardcore Scarface fans a chance to see some of the originals actors back in character for the brief shots that are peppered throughout this feature.

Scarface: The TV Version (02m:48s, 480i AVC, English DTS 2.0)
A very short overview of the considerable edits needed to make this notoriously profane film clean for TV. Amusing enough.

U-Control: Picture in Picture
If you have ever owned a Universal Blu-ray then you know the drill: Turn this option on to watch the film with a little interface in the bottom right corner that will periodically indicate that you can press a button to display a little pop-up window featuring interview footage pertaining to the scene currently playing. I wouldn't mind this feature so much if those snippets lasted longer than a minute and hence I didn't have to keep manually selecting them every few seconds (which soon gets tedious in a film this long!).

If you are more patient than me you'll find interview footage in here that never made it into the finished featurettes on this disc - that includes not only the newly produced Scarface Phenomenon but also the old interview sessions that make up the Rebirth/Acting/Creating features. I can't say I found the new footage worth the effort though.

U-Control: Scarface Scorecard
The second U-control feature is perhaps the most pointless extra feature on the disc (which is saying something). Activating it overlays an interface during the film that displays a cartoon bomb in the top right corner (subtly labelled with the letter "F", in case you don't get the visual gag) that keeps count every time an F-word is expressed by the film's colourful characters. In the bottom left corner there is an image of a pistol that keeps track of the number of bullets spent during the various shootouts.

If you've ever wanted to know how many F-words and bullets have appeared in the film by the fifteenth or fortieth or seventieth minute marks then this is a very useful feature, otherwise I suggest it would be much simpler and faster to do a Google search if you want to know exactly how many expletives/bullets/bodies are dropped in the entire film.


Overall

Universal have a history of giving Scarface underwhelming treatment on home video, which is a tradition that they've come close to continuing here. Their HD presentation just about delivers, so long as you're not a fan of lossless original audio, but there is very little "produce" in the Extra Features department beyond the same old Making Of documentary that Universal have been flogging to death for over thirteen years now.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
6 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

Last updated: 31/05/2018 04:20:57

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