Scarface: Anniversary Edition
Film Length: 170 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16X9 Enhanced Widescreen (2.35:1)
Subtitles: English (Captioned), French, and Spanish
Audio: English - Dolby Digital 5.1; English – DTS 5.1; Spanish – 2.0 Mono; French 2.0 Mono
For some people, Brian De Palma’s remake of the 1932 film Scarface is the ultimate gangster film, the Holy Grail of visceral, in-your-face filmmaking. Others loathe this film, and argue that its extremely violent tone undermines the effectiveness of the picture as a whole. After immersing myself in this film (and its special features) again, I believe I lean towards the former of these two extremes, but still give my nod for greatest crime film ever to Goodfellas. Personally, I am not bothered by the violence in the film because it serves a purpose. In fact, upon viewing this film again after a couple of years, I don’t even find the violent sequences in Scarface to be immensely shocking anymore. To me, Scarface is more of a tragedy with violent elements in it, featuring outstanding performances and wonderful direction by Brian De Palma.
Even those critical of Scarface should at least acknowledge its tremendous influence on the crime film genre, and the mass appeal it still enjoys two full decades after its rather disappointing theatrical run. To be sure, this is only my opinion, but whether one loves or hates Scarface, I think very few people have the capacity to sit through this film in its entirety without having a significant emotional reaction to it. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I know for certain that I felt something the first time I saw Scarface, and have every time since, which I believe that is the mark of an effective story.
Before going any further, I should point out that I do not consider Scarface to be a “gangster” flick, like other crime epics such as The Godfather or Goodfellas, because Tony Montana operates outside of a group for the most part. Since he works almost entirely to promote his own interests, Tony is generally not sharing the spoils of his success with homies, a posse, gangsters, a “crew”, or….sorry, I was getting carried away. To be sure, he does have one true friend, and the usual employees and hangers-on, but there is really no “gang” to speak of. There is never a doubt of who is in charge once Tony takes over. Simply put, this is Tony’s world, and everyone else in it is just a squirrel trying to get a nut. Therefore, the argument can be made that Scarface is really a more of a character study about Tony Montana (Al Pacino), and an exploration of the tragedy-laden rise and fall of a drug kingpin, than a “gangster” film.
As Scarface opens, it is early 1980, and Cuba’s dictatorial ruler Fidel Castro has permitted approximately 125,000 people to leave the country. Some of these individuals, who flee to the United States, are normal people simply hoping for a better life, but amongst them are about 25,000 hardcore criminals, killers, and thugs willing to do almost anything to get to America (and possibly anything once they arrive). Tony Montana is just such a man, possessing the street smarts, toughness, and determination to do whatever it takes to fulfill his desire to live the good life.
Soon after Mr. Montana arrives in Florida, he finds employment in the operation of a Miami drug Czar, Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). Within a few months, Tony becomes one Lopez’s most trusted men, but unfortunately for Frank, his ambitious understudy has designs of his own. After learning the ropes, Tony quickly overthrows Lopez and seizes control of his entire empire, including his girlfriend (Michelle Pfeiffer). However, despite having realized his dream of having money, power, and a beautiful woman, Tony becomes consumed by the desire to expand his empire. In effect, he wants even more money, even more power, and complete control over the women in his life, including his own sister (sick!). Unfortunately, Montana fails to heed history, which has shown time and time again that those who stretch their resources too thin are eventually undone by their own excessive behaviors.
Despite its nearly three-hour running time, Scarface moves along at a rapid pace, and never becomes boring. Oliver Stone’s screenplay and Brian De Palma’s solid direction infuse Scarface with a nice mix of intrigue, action, and character development, and the movie never overstays its welcome in any one area, which is remarkable for such a long film. The score by Giorgio Moroder fits the theme of the film as well, though it is way too synth-heavy for my taste. More importantly, the wild, violent lifestyle of the drug traders is accurately portrayed (the violence is based on real criminal actions). Granted, the realistic depiction of violence and murder in this film may prove to be too much for the very squeamish, but it really drives home the animalistic nature of the drug trade, and how truly savage the people involved in it can be to each other. People that cross drug traders, or otherwise get in their way, are not just killed, they are maimed, mauled, and brutalized in terrible ways to instill fear in competing drug traffickers.
The other element that helps make Scarface such a memorable film are the outstanding performances all around, especially by Al Pacino. In my opinion, Pacino’s performance in Scarface is so phenomenal that he deserved a Best Actor Oscar ã for his performance as Tony Montana even more than for his turn as Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman. Despite everything that happens in the film, I really felt sympathetic for how sad and pathetic Montana becomes by the end. Getting an audience to feel sympathy for such a brutal, hardened character is no easy task, and the fact that Pacino succeeds is a testament to his greatness.
It would be easy to go on and on about how marvelous Pacino is in Scarface (being half-Cuban, I can even vouch for most of the accent), but he has reached this level so many times before and since, it would merely be pointing out the obvious. It is important to note, however, that the filmmakers also did a very good job in casting the supporting roles, so that the other actors are not completely overwhelmed whenever Al Pacino is on the screen.
Summing things up, Scarface is not the consummate “gangster film” that some people make it out to be in my mind, but it is a very solid, entertaining film that imparts some powerful messages. The script is well written, quotable, and faithfully depicts the dangerous, chaotic environment that high-volume drug traders operate in. Additionally, the level of care taken by Oliver Stone, who relied on thorough research and his own troubles with narcotics to accurately portray this lifestyle, down to its most grim details, is admirable, and gives the film a grittiness to go along with its sense of legitimacy. As I already mentioned, the tour-de-force performance from Al Pacino helps this film stand the test of time, and the excellent production values don’t hurt either. If you haven’t seen Scarface before, do yourself a favor and check it out!
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
The initial Collector’s Edition DVD release of Scarface is widely regarded as one of the worst transfers ever, plagued by artifacts, extreme edge enhancement, and poor contrast throughout. Although I never had the chance to view the earlier release on a properly calibrated display, on the screen I did view it on the transfer looked worse than a bag of flaming dog excrement that has been stamped out by a heavy steel-toed boot.
In fact, I think the best way of saying how bad the transfer on the Collector’s Edition DVD was is that I really enjoy this movie, but never had the slightest urge to buy, rent, or borrow it to watch the film again over the past couple of years. Since Universal has had some quality control issues with other releases as of late, I was really hoping they would make things right, and pull out all the stops to restore this modern classic.
So, what is the end result? Well, I must admit that I was skeptical about how good the picture quality would be when I read the spec sheet for the Scarface: Anniversary Edition DVD. The disc has a film with a nearly three hour running time, as well as two 5.1 tracks and two foreign language mono tracks crammed onto it, so something has to be sacrificed, right? Not entirely…since Universal made the wise (and probably only) choice to place all of the bonus materials on a second disc.
I suppose the first issue I should address is whether the new transfer is better than the one found on the Collector’s Edition DVD. The answer to that query would be is hell yeah! In fact, this transfer kicks the previous transfer’s a*&! But does that mean it is not without some problems of its own? Well, unfortunately, the answer to that question is no.
Right about now, you might be thinking “Oh, no! Not again Universal!!!”, but let me throw the high points out on the table for your consideration before any profanities are uttered. On this revamped Anniversary Edition, contrast and black level are vastly improved, giving the film a nice texture and above average shadow detail. As you might expect, the image also benefits immensely from the additional resolution made possible by the anamorphic transfer.
Colors and flesh tones also appear to be rendered pretty accurately, although the deeper reds seem to bleed ever so slightly. Most of the specks and anomalies in the image have been cleaned up as well, but a small few remain to give the picture a distinctly “non-digital” feel. Lastly, I must mention that in contrast to some of the distance shots, the close-ups on this film look great!
Now I will address the issues I had with the new transfer. The edge enhancement that was so dreadful on the previous release has also been almost eliminated, but mild edge enhancement is still visible on occasion. This is a very minor issue though, and the haloing never becomes too much of a distraction. As I mentioned earlier, the Scarface Collector’s Edition DVD was also infested with compression artifacts. This release has almost completely eliminated the problem, however I did see two instances where artifacts popped up very briefly. Look at the left side of Ernie’s face towards the end of Chapter 20, and on the right side of another one of Tony’s henchmen early in Chapter 31. Again, both of these occurrences are extremely brief, but they are there, so I thought I should point them out.
Another thing I noticed is that in Scarface’s many scenes where the characters are not close to the camera, the image appears somewhat soft, and lacking in definition. One example of this can be seen at the beginning of Chapter 10. The same can be said for background detail throughout the film, and there is some minor video “noise” visible in the background of a few scenes (see Chapters 12 and 15).
Of course I did not expect this transfer for Scarface to be perfect, and it isn’t, but no transfer is. All things considered, I actually thought the overall video quality on this edition of Scarface was very good, especially compared to the piss-poor image present on the Collector’s Edition DVD. Additionally, Scarface is a 20-year old film, so I think it would be unreasonable to expect it to look as good as The Two Towers, Attack of the Clones, or Amelie. Indeed, some of the issues I outlined above are really not as bad as they seem in writing, but I do not want to develop the false hope of this release containing a “reference quality” transfer for anyone.
I guess the bottom line is that while it is not eye-popping, this new transfer is leaps and bounds above the quality of the one found on the Collector’s Edition of Scarface, despite all of the audio tracks competing for space on the disc, and the film’s three-hour running time. With that in mind, I think the transfer on this Scarface: Anniversary Edition DVD is something of a triumph for Universal!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Falling in line with the video quality on the previous DVD release of Scarface, the audio quality was downright bad. The soundstage was narrow and confined…wait a minute, was there even a soundstage? Moreover, the mix sounded extremely muddy, and frequency response was definitely on the poor side.
The Anniversary Edition of Scarface provides a variety of audio options, including both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 channel mixes, and monaural Spanish and French tracks. I selected the DTS track for this review, and although I found it to be less than stellar, this mix was ultimately satisfying.
I cannot lie, and say that this DTS mix for Scarface sounds like a native 5.1 channel mix, but it sounds less like re-mixed sound than most other re-mixes (if that makes any sense). Dialogue was well presented, for the most part, with only slight hints of compression from time to time. Further, the front soundstage was pretty spacious, making it easy to hear exactly what the characters were saying. Lastly, I did not notice any hissing or other abnormalities that would interfere with the presentation of the dialogue.
In terms of frequency response, I would say that this DTS mix was above average, but the audio was on the muddy side during the film’s few intense action sequences. Overall bass response was also pretty good, adding some impact to the cheesy disco music in the film’s nightclub sequences. However, low-frequency effects were almost non-existent, and what was there was ill-defined, but it is hard to know whether to fault the mix or the source material for that. Likewise, surround usage is on the light side, although the rear channels do help heighten the tension during a few sequences, especially the film’s climax. During the nightclub scenes, and occasionally throughout the movie, the rears also embellish the film’s music and score.
In a nutshell, the audio portion of the Anniversary Edition of Scarface is a little better than average. Dialogue is always clearly presented, and film’s music comes across fine, but I would have liked a little more cohesiveness and clarity during the action sequences, and the gunfire needed a bit more impact as well.
** Deleted Scenes:
Since Scarface runs for almost three hours, I did not have high hopes for these deleted scenes. Seriously, how much more good material could have been left on the cutting room floor? There are fifteen scenes in all, which play as one reel, but a few of the scenes are merely variations or alternate takes of one scene from a different angle. In all honesty, there is not too much substantial information presented in this material, most of which was clearly trimmed for time.
**Def Jam Recordings Presents: Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic:
I must confess to assuming that this was going to be a worthless, ridiculous extra when I received the press release for the Scarface Anniversary Edition DVD. Boy was I wrong! I am not saying that this is the most exciting, poignant featurette ever, but the host of hip-hop artists interviewed, including Snoop Dogg, P. Diddy, Eve, and Scarface had some very interesting things to say about Scarface the movie. Indeed, their comments really encapsulate just how popular this film has become in the last twenty years.
Surprisingly, the hip-hop artists that participated in this featurette really know this film! Most were able to quote dialogue with a great degree of accuracy (unless they were just being fed lines), and provide insightful analysis into the concepts treated with in the film. What really fascinated me though, was how these rappers provided a real understanding of how inner city youth, especially “minorities” interpret the messages and lessons in Scarface. Interestingly, several of those interviewed cited the realistic approach Scarface took to depicting the drug trade’s brutality to cause them to dedicate their efforts to succeeding in the music world, not as street hustlers.
**“Rebirth of Scarface” Featurette:
This 10-minute piece features Al Pacino, Brian De Palma, Martin Bregman, and Oliver Stone discussing the development of their version of Scarface. Although brief, this featurette is well produced and interesting, and does a particularly good job of comparing De Palma’s modern epic to the 1932 release that inspired it. It moves along very quickly, and it is a bit deeper and more fulfilling than typical EPK material. Some of the highlights include:
---Al Pacino talking about how strong his desire to do the film was after he finally saw the original.
---Brian De Palma revealing how difficult it was to develop the screenplay, and his departure from the project for a time.
---Oliver Stone opening up about how he became attached to the Scarface project, and how he was battling personal drug addiction while writing the screenplay.
**“Acting Scarface” Featurette:
This featurette, which runs for approximately 15 minutes, focuses on the process of casting Scarface. De Palma and Bregman talk about what it like to work with an actor of Al Pacino’s caliber, and how hard they worked to surround him with a cast that would not be completely overshadowed by his tremendous presence. Pacino also provides some fascinating insight into how he developed the accent and mannerisms for his role, and his vision for the character.
**“Creating Scarface” Featurette:
The “Creating Scarface” featurette provides a wealth of detail about every aspect of the creative process that led to Scarface. More specifically, Brian De Palma, Al Pacino, Martin Bregman, Oliver Stone, and Director of Photography John Alonzo talk about the original plan to shoot the entire film in Florida, selecting the color schemes used in the film, the execution of the film’s violent sequences, and how Pacino infused a bit of humor into the Tony Montana character to offset some of the film’s brutality.
This featurette was enjoyable, interesting, and extremely informative (so much so that I watched it twice to catch everything)! There is a good discussion of how the violence in the film was all based upon real criminal acts, and I found it very interesting that this film was rated ‘X’ several times, until Bregman and De Palma went to war to get an R-rating! There are also a few surprises, such as a brief mention of Steven Spielberg’s contribution to Scarface.
I want to make it perfectly clear that despite seeing it several times over the years, I am in no way an expert on Scarface. Undoubtedly, some of you reading this review will already know everything contained in all of the supplemental materials. However, if you do not already have an in depth knowledge of all things Scarface, this is the most worthwhile extra on the bonus disc, in my humble opinion of course!
**Scarface – Television Version Trailers:
This brief extra, which contrasts the theatrical and television versions of Scarface was very entertaining! The first portion consists of Martin Bregman quickly discussing the process of editing the film for television. A montage of scenes from both the theatrical release and the television broadcast version of the film follow Bregman’s commentary to show how some of the more extreme violence and language was altered. Some of the edits made to the TV version are almost laughable, but at least whole scenes were not cut out due to language. Producer Martin Bregman believes that somehow the spirit of the film appears to remain intact in this TV edit. What do you think?
**Cast and Crew Filmography/Bios:
Brief biographies and filmographies are provided for:
Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Oliver Stone, Brian De Palma Robert Loggia, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Miriam Colon, F. Murray Abraham, and Paul Shenar,
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
Brian De Palma’s Scarface is a gripping, epic film that deserved much better treatment than it received on the previous “Collector’s Edition” DVD release, which is probably taking up a lot of landfill space by now. As such, I am happy that it has finally received a DVD release that fans can be proud to own! No, the transfer is not the ultimate in picture quality, and the re-mixed 5.1 audio is only a little above average, but the nice compliment of extras really kicks it up a notch. The only thing missing was a commentary track!
Perhaps things could have been a little better in the audio/visual departments, which is the only reason I am not giving this release my unqualified recommendation. Still, in my opinion Scarface has never looked or sounded better in the home, thanks to the Anniversary Edition’s “better-than-original” picture and sound. The movie itself isn’t half bad either! Recommended!
September 30th, 2003