Operatic is not nearly a word large enough to describe Scarface, director Brian DePalma's coked-out epic of Eighties excess. Fueled by future manic auteur Oliver Stone's gonzo screenplay, bringing Ben Hecht's early Thirties gangland film into then-modern day Miami, and Al Pacino's towering, iconic performance as the Cuban immigrant who rises from the gutter to the top of Miami's brutal drug trade, it's a film whose legend has only grown in the ensuing decades, thanks largely to being embraced by Hispanic and African-American rap artists, as well as a surge in popularity for crime films – gaudy, gory and gloriously debauched, Scarface is a film very much of and slightly ahead of its time.
Not so much updating as obliterating the 1932 Howard Hawks film, Stone, DePalma and Pacino stretch their widescreen canvas to the breaking point, somehow managing to impart an epic, continent-bounding story of rags-to-riches-to-massive piles of blow without once straining to fit every last scrap of narrative in; at nearly three hours, Scarface unfolds at a luxurious pace, likely too slowly for some, who would rather DePalma dispense with the character studies and get to the adrenaline-charged set pieces. Some of the film's lugubriousness owes to the fact that DePalma, in a move that somewhat smacks of latent racism, elected to use very few Hispanic or Latino actors, relying instead on heavily made-up Caucasians whose mangled, dodgy Cuban accents provide an unintentional element of camp to the otherwise deadly serious proceedings. There are a few actors – Robert Loggia, F. Murray Abraham, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, even Pacino – who are more frequent offenders, but hey, you're not watching Scarface for a meticulous attention to detail, right?
No, you're watching to involve yourself in the old-as-time yet still oddly effective story of a man raising himself from nothing to a position of tremendous influence: Tony Montana (Pacino) is introduced to the audience in the midst of an interrogation, fresh from a Cuban refugee boat. It's the dawn of the 1980s and Fidel Castro has allowed several thousand Cubans to escape to the Florida coasts – it sounds like a noble gesture, but as the opening crawl explains, many of the boats were infested with vicious criminals that the dictator was happy to be rid of. Tony and his best friend, Manny Ribera (Steven Bauer) waste little time ingratiating themselves with friends in high places, carrying out a hit during chaotic riots in a temporary Cuban shantytown.
After earning their freedom, Tony and Manny befriend local drug kingpin Frank Lopez (Loggia), whose frigid wife Elvira Hancock (an often over-looked Michelle Pfeiffer) hypnotizes Tony, a voracious thug with his sights set on being the biggest, baddest and richest narcotics trafficker in Florida. In short order, Tony is scaling the ladder, climbing ever higher in the ranks of Frank's organization, increasing his wealth and becoming ever more ruthless in his acquisition of power, becoming a man feared by his estranged family, which includes kid sister Gina (Mastrantonio) and his distrustful Mama (Miriam Colon).
Tony's meteoric rise to the top of the Miami drug game is, as expected, following by his swift tumble from grace, a fall precipitated by an increased paranoia stemming from staggering cocaine abuse – in the film's latter third, cocaine, profanity and bullets flies with equal élan; Tony Montana is brought low by his ambition, driven to his knees by insulating himself from his friends and his family, his world dissolving in a blizzard of white powder. What's often lost amid all of the blood, powder and fury in Scarface is that Stone weaved a cautionary tale about the corrosive nature of drugs (cocaine, in particular) into the fabric of this otherwise by-the-numbers story-line; sure, Tony is a hero to a generation of rappers, wannabe thugs and posturing suburban teens, but he's also a symbol of a decade that celebrated having too much of a good thing. The Eighties have a number of films that perfectly capture the hedonistic, live-fast-die-young aesthetic and Scarface is certainly among the best.
While its obscured good intentions and surprisingly moral message can make revisiting the film worthwhile, there are also aspects that can wear on those experiencing this landmark work for the first time – the coarse language, startling bursts of violence and pat third act can leave some feeling as though they've been battered about the head for almost three hours; DePalma is far from a subtle filmmaker, but I'd argue that for this film, his ceaseless approach works in favor of the material. If you're uncomfortable with more than a few utterances of the word "fuck," you'd probably do well to pick up something else up off the shelf. However, if you've always been curious as to what the fuss is all about, there's no better place to start exploring Scarface than with this latest DVD incarnation. Big, over-the-top and gaudy to a fault? Sure – but it's also one of the most riveting, exhilarating and passionate works of art of the last two decades.
This "platinum edition" of Scarface marks the third (technically the fourth, if you include the "anniversary edition" gift-set as a separate entity) DVD release of this film by Universal – you have to wonder if the Scarface: The World Is Yours Edition, the Scarface: My Little Friend Edition or the Scarface: You're Fuckin' With The Best Edition isn't in the offing. Scarface is easily one of the titles most often seen re-appearing on DVD, with minor changes that are just significant enough to irritate those who thought the last time they purchased the latest spruced-up copy of Scarface was, well, the last time. Obviously, multiple dips of a popular title such as this one won't stop – I'll address the raison d'etre for this "platinum edition" more thoroughly in the following paragraphs, but suffice to say, this latest incarnation of Scarface likely won't be the last. The DVD
Scarface is a film that utilizes every available inch of its widescreen frame, so a sharp, clean and vivid transfer is, one would hope, a given for any digital release of DePalma's opus of excess. This latest release boasts a very smooth, film-like 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that doesn't suffer from any noticeable grain, shimmer or other age-related defects. I compared various scenes from the "platinum edition" to the "anniversary edition" and this latest release looks ever-so-slightly better in terms of color saturation, sharpness and detail – I could not detect any drastic differences between the 2003 and 2006 releases so in essence, the increase in visual quality is negligible. It's a great transfer of dated material. The Audio:
Here's where Universal hopes to make amends for the uproar caused by the previous "anniversary edition" – many fans of the film, who caught the limited engagement, 20th anniversary theatrical re-release of Scarface in 2003, noted that on the subsequent "anniversary edition" DVD, the action sequences lacked a certain punch, with gunshots and explosions sounding thin, tinny and wholly without presence. Hell, even Giorgio Moroder's hopelessly dated synth score lacked weight. According to the Internet Movie Database, the 20th anniversary print was cleaned up both visually and aurally, with the audio track receiving the most attention (i.e., remixed score cues, all of the film's gunshot sounds replaced with newly created SFX, some other minor nips and tucks). When the film was released as the two-disc "anniversary edition," Universal inexplicably used the original sound mix, relying upon the vintage mix (not the newly re-mastered one) for the new Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 DVD soundtracks. Why the studio would do this unless it was deliberately withholding the restored soundtrack for a future release (which is what appears to have happened) is beyond me – and more than a little infuriating.
This "platinum edition" is, in essence, what the "anniversary edition" of the film should have been, so those wanting to ditch the weaker-sounding 2003 release won't feel burned yet another time. The (and I quote) "completely restored and digitally enhanced" soundtrack goes a long way towards increasing the presence of the countless gunshots peppering the film's soundtrack. Wisely, Universal has again confined the film to its own disc, with Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1 and French Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtracks included. The DTS track is warm, spacious and thrillingly alive when necessary – a sampling of both the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks during the climactic gun battle (and a similar comparison to the "anniversary edition") proved that, indeed, the fidelity and presence of the audio was noticeably improved on this latest disc. The gunshots and explosions have more bass response, and dialogue during the final shoot-out is much clearer and more easily understood. Don't expect a dazzling, wholesale sonic reinvention – this is a case of subtle changes, rendering gunshots and explosions to have a fuller, more vivid impact, sounds that are in line with modern expectations. Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are also on board. The Extras:
First, the good news: those who yearn to be rid of the superfluous featurette "Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic" from the "anniversary edition" can toss their copies of the 2003 release without fear of losing any additional bonus material. Of course, you'll have to be content with the 12 minute, four second featurette detailing the making of "Scarface: The Video Game," but if you could put up with the Def Jam piece, this one is just as negligible.
Housed in an Amaray keepcase tucked inside a very sturdy cardboard slipcase that eclipses the much thinner, more easily damaged 2003 slipcase, the lone bonus on the first disc is a goofy – but fun – feature called "Scarface Scorecard" – when this feature is enabled, a small ticker keeping track of the utterances of "fuck" and a small ticker keeping track of all the bullets fired appears at the bottom of the frame, tallying up the swears and shots throughout the film's run time. It's a complete throwaway, but kind of fun for a few minutes (for extra laughs, turn it on prior to the final shootout!)
The second disc in this "platinum edition" is virtually identical to the 2003 release; aside from the new, previously mentioned 12 minute video game featurette, the 22 minutes of deleted scenes, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, are back again, as is the new, 11 minute, 38 second featurette "The World of Tony Montana," presented in anamorphic widescreen and featuring quotes from the likes of Maxim magazine, XXL magazine and former DEA agents. Also ported over from the 2003 release are the trio of retrospective featurettes – "The Rebirth" (10:03); "Acting" (15:05) and "Creating" (29:34) – and the always amusing two minute, 47 second featurette "The TV Version," outlining the ludicrous lengths censors will go to. All featurettes (not the deleted scenes) feature optional English, Spanish and French subtitles. Final Thoughts:
This "platinum edition" of Scarface marks the third (technically the fourth, if you include the "anniversary edition" gift-set as a separate entity) DVD release of this film by Universal – Scarface is easily one of the titles most often seen re-appearing on DVD, with minor changes that are just significant enough to irritate those who thought the last time they purchased the latest spruced-up copy of Scarface was, well, the last time. Obviously, multiple dips of a popular title such as this one won't stop and it's difficult to wholeheartedly recommend a film that has been re-sold so many times. I'll split the difference between a high recommendation, for those who've yet to add Scarface to their collection and a suggestion that die-hard fans first rent the film to see if the audio tweaks are to their liking with a middle-of-the-road recommended.