Funny how opinions change over time. When Scarface first came out in 1983,
it didn't do much at the box office and it received a largely negative
reaction from the critics. However, nowadays it seems to be regarded as
something of a classic and many see it as one of Brian De Palma's best films.
I only saw Scarface on video back in the mid 1980's, and I didn't think all
that much of it. Since I'd seen critical reaction to the film change over
the past decade and a half, I thought the same might be true for me. Hey,
maybe I'd even experienced some personal growth since I was 17! (Not too
likely, according to my friends...)
As such, I decided to give Scarface a screening. The more things change,
the more they stay the same. Now that I've watched the film again, I can
frankly say that I don't understand its appeal. I found Scarface to be a
bloated, superficial, and simply dull excuse for an action drama.
My greatest complaint with Scarface involves its frightfully one
dimensional characters. Not a one shows any signs of development over the
film's nearly three hours, and most don't register much of an impact. Oh, we
see a lot of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), our lead character, but I never felt
like any real insight into his personality was presented. This is a guy who
we see go from small time hood to millionaire drug boss in fairly short
order, but we don't learn a whole lot about him. It seemed improbable to me
that Montana would succeed like he did. He doesn't appear especially smart
or clever, and while his will seems strong, we see no indications that he's
any more committed than anyone else in his line of work. Yet he reaches the
top with little apparent effort.
Pacino's received a lot of praise over his career, and many find his
portrayal of Montana to be one of his best pieces of work. That list does
not include me. His acting is way over the top and enters the realm of
caricature. That "Jose Jimenez" accent didn't help, either. Pacino's a good
actor, but he tends toward the hammy side of the street, and this performance
demonstrates that bent quite well.
Cartoony though he may be, at least Montana registers strongly with the
audience. The same cannot be said for most of the other characters. Manny
Ray (Steven Bauer) is Montana's second in charge, and Bauer receives
significant screen time. However, the character's a virtual cipher; I've
seen lint that made a more powerful impression. When he's onscreen, he might
as well be back in his trailer, because his presence carries absolutely no
Michelle Pfeiffer fares better in her woefully underdeveloped role as love
interest Elvira, but not much better. She offers an appropriately jaded and
bitter turn in the role, but she seems to be in the film as a symbol more
than as a participant; Elvira's there just as a token to represent Tony's
level of achievement. Once she disappears toward the end of the film, we
don't hear from her again; alone among the main characters, her ultimate fate
is a complete mystery to us. Poor writing? Partially, but also I think the
story needed her no longer; if she wasn't visible as Tony's prize, then to
hell with her!
Ultimately, I feel that Scarface fails as a film not just because of the
weak characters or the sketchy script but mainly because I never felt in the
least bit involved in the story. Stuff happens, lives progress, and so what?
I never felt any interest or investment in anything that occurred. Tony's
rise to power simply seems like such a de facto occurrence, with so little
action of interest along the way, that I don't care when he receives his
When Scarface first came out, a lot of the controversy and negativity that
surrounded the film mainly involved the allegedly graphic nature of the
picture. As De Palma discusses in the supplements, the studio had to wage a
bitter struggle to keep the movie from receiving an "X" rating due to the
violence and the language. Maybe I was just too bored to notice, but I
didn't think the movie seemed overly offensive. Yeah, I guess we do hear
lots of profanity, but since it made sense within the film's world, it
doesn't offer any shock value; it's just there. The violence wasn't anything
overtly shocking, either; most of it is implied rather than shown, and those
scenes occupy a relatively small portion of the movie anyway.
Despite my sentiments, obviously quite a few people like Scarface since it
has received the deluxe treatment as a "Collector's Edition" DVD (and
previously issued laserdisc) from Universal. While portions of this DVD
succeed, overall the set must be regarded as a failure; it offers some fine
supplemental materials but the quality of the film itself is absolutely
Where to begin? First off, the picture looks consistently bad. And not just
kind of bad - really bad, although it's tremendously erratic. The quality of
the image ranges from pretty good to sub-VHS,
crappy-print-seen-on-the-late-show bad. I estimate that roughly ten percent
of the film meets the "pretty good" standard; it's that ten percent that just
barely kept me from giving this DVD an "F" for picture. The rest of the film
looks consistently terrible. The image is continually very soft and fuzzy,
and it also seems very two-dimensional and flat. If you like moiré effects,
you'll be happy here: they abound. Anything that can shimmer, does shimmer.
The print itself manifests many flaws such as grain and marks. Colors fare
better; they appear fairly accurate throughout the movie, but since the
entire environment's so hazy, it's often hard to tell. Put bluntly, the
picture on this DVD is a disgrace.
The Dolby Prologic 2.0 sound mix of Scarface doesn't do anything to help
this DVD's case either. It's very hollow and thin and it displays little
separation; for the most part, the movie seems to be glorified mono. A major
studio movie from 1983 should have at least made a token effort at
dimensional sound, but that isn't the case here. The rear channels are used
virtually exclusively for the reproduction of the score. Even if the music
was good this would be a disappointing state of affairs, but since it's not -
it's a horribly fated synthesizer effort from '80's cheesemeister Giorgio
Moroder - the situation is even worse.
The only redemption offered from the Scarface DVD is its wealth of
supplemental materials. For the most part, Universal does a good job with
this aspect of their "Collector's Editions," and this set is no exception.
The main attraction here is the 52 minute Making of Scarface feature.
While it's not the best program of its kind that I've seen - involvement from
actors other than just Pacino would have been nice - it still provides a good
encapsulation of the creation of the film. Actually, it's a lot more
entertaining than the movie itself.
Also of interest are the DVD's 15 minutes worth of deleted scenes. We
receive no indication why these bits were excised - they seem no worse than
the parts that they kept - but they're a worthwhile addition to the set.
Frankly, I was rather sick of the film by the time I got to them, since I'd
spent the prior 220 minutes watching the movie and the documentary, so I grew
a bit impatient while they ran, but I'm sure fans of the movie will be very
happy to see these cut scenes.
In addition, Scarface contains some of the usual DVD fare. We get three
trailers (two for Scarface and one for 1993's De Palma/Pacino
collaboration, Carlito's Way), a fairly extensive gallery of stills, some
production notes that echo but elaborate upon information in the documentary,
and better than average director and cast biographies. All in all, it's a
good batch of supplements.
Despite that, I can't recommend the Scarface DVD for anyone other than the
rabid fans of the film. For all I know, this may be the highest quality
reproduction of the movie, but I certainly hope not. Whatever the case may
be, if all you want is the DVD's supplements, then it's worth your time and
your money. If - God forbid - you actually expect a $35 MSRP DVD to provide
high quality sound and picture in addition to good bonus materials, you're
out of luck.