Now 28 years young, Scarface is still indelibly etched into popular consciousness. Whether through dialogue as quotable now as it was in 1983, or with poster prints continuing to adorn the walls of students and ostentatious MTV Cribs celebs, few films achieve such timelessness, and those that do become true pop-culture icons.
The downsides to perennial adulation and ubiquity are the fanboyism and over-scrutinisation that follow – both are equally difficult to put aside when watching the film in 2011 and judging it objectively by its merits.
The fact is that everyone who has seen Scarface already has an opinion of it which is unlikely to change. Those that haven’t seen it most certainly should, yet are unlikely to be able to do so with the clean slate and lack of bias that come with having no foreknowledge of either the film itself or the reputation that precedes it.
For the uninitiated, Al Pacino’s classic turn sees him as the larger-than-life Tony Montana, every bit the antithesis of the stoic, still-waters portrayal of Michael Corleone that first led the actor into cinema history. Eschewing Castro’s regime, the cocksure and volatile Cuban searches the seedy underbelly of Miami for his own version of the American dream, and in Scarface, the American dream of 1983’s Miami is cocaine.
Scarface, in the spirit of cinema’s great gangster epics (including Howard Hawkes’ 1932 original), charts the rise and then inexorable fall that goes hand-in-hand with such ruthless quests for power. More than anything else, the film depicts how capitalism, when sought above all else, can corrupt absolutely.
Yet despite this, it cannot be said that the film’s messages are delivered with nuance and subtlety. The triumvirate of Pacino, director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone paint this tale with broad, brash, neon strokes, and the three of them deliver career-best work in each of their respective roles.
At the forefront of it all is Pacino, filling every frame with a performance of barbed humour and affable wit, just beneath the surface of which is a switch that is always a hair’s width away from being flipped. Pacino has said himself that Montana is a man of only two dimensions, and he clearly relishes the opportunity to unleash Tony’s fury on the frequent occasions the opportunity presents itself.
De Palma’s direction is equally schizophrenic. While happy to imbue the world with colour and scope, sweeping cameras and long shots are punctuated by explosions of visceral and abrupt violence. His love of wringing tension from lingering shots and mutual paranoia has never been more prevalent than it is here, and arguably has never been bettered in any of his later films.
Stone’s script also lacks the self-aggrandising controversy and stylistic excesses he can sometimes be synonymous with. Instead, he is happy to tell a tale of greed and ambition, using little more than a classic story arc peppered with endlessly engaging and repeatable dialogue.
That the film is so engrained with the trappings of its decade only serves to add further to its appeal; the more distant the repellant Hawaiian shirts, huge cigars and synth pop of 1983 become, the more timeless the film seems. Yet timelessness does not lessen the irksomeness of the synth score that both manages to successfully place the film in its era and pollute the odd scene with cheesy B-moviedom or soap opera melodramatics.
The pacing across the 2 hour 50 minute runtime can also seem a little uneven, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance understandably falls a little flat when juxtaposed with the exuberance and flamboyance of her costars. The film’s imperfections aside, Scarface is still something of a tour-de-force even now.
Despite his actions, Pacino’s Montana is endlessly watchable. He is a likeable character with a moral code that, while heavily skewed, keeps his ambitions on the side of reason just enough for you to root for him on some level, right from his fantastic introduction through to the film’s iconoclastic ending.
Scarface’s fans and detractors are already firmly entrenched in their respective camps. Some think it to be overblown pomp – as irredeemably and loudly extroverted as the cocaine lifestyle it joyously and ruthlessly depicts. Conversely, its fans refer to it alongside The Godfather, Goodfellas and Once Upon A Time In America in the pantheon of the great gangster films.
For this reviewer, the latter applies. Scarface is fantastically and ebulliently acted, irresistibly scripted and beautifully shot.
Sometimes films are not as good as history remembers them out to be. Sometime, however, they actually are.
The 1080p picture here is generally fantastic, with all of Miami’s sunshine and primary colours looking superb, seeming perfectly at odds with the occasional grimness of some of the story’s events. The only problems arise in darker scenes, where a rougher, grainy effect has a tendency to creep in.
Sound, too, is crisp and clear in the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 presented here, with music and speech mixed perfectly, adequately interspersed with punchy, deafening gunfire.
The extras are fairly generous, but those who already own earlier DVD editions will be hard to find a reason to shell out for this version, too.
Over a hundred minutes of standard-definition featurettes are carried over from the DVD version, including the expected making of, which covers the genesis of the film, the casting process, and also a rather irrelevant and superfluous section about the making of the videogame. These features benefit from talking heads including Pacino, who is noticeably absent from the Blu-ray-exclusive documentary.
This exclusive documentary is The Scarface Phenomenon, a forty-minute retrospective that, while lacking Pacino, does feature interviews with the principal crew and, strangely, Eli Roth.
The U-Control feature is also included on the Blu-ray, though the interviews this brings up can largely be found elsewhere on the disc. BD Live functionality is included too, as is the ability to bookmark scenes in My Scenes and D-Box Motion Code. No commentary is included, however, which is quite disappointing.
The inclusion of the original 1932 Scarface, meanwhile, gives a great opportunity to see first hand the parallels (and, most likely, differences) between Hawkes’ prohibition era take on the tale and the one made famous by Pacino.
A fairly well-rounded package for those without the DVD, then, but the Blu-ray exclusives do not get anywhere near what’s needed to warrant a second purchase if you already have the DVD in your collection.
You can rent or buy Scarface at Blockbuster.co.uk.