Blu-Ray Review: SCARFACE - The Best This Modern Classic Has Ever Looked

The classic remake, starring Al Pacino explodes onto blu-ray under a hail of high-definition features on Sept 5th...

Must not start this review with "Say hello to my little friend!"... Brian DePalma's most infamous film is a pulpy pleasure to end them all, which has led to masses of accusations of over-indulgent, OTT trash since its 1983 release, but which is surprisingly deep beneath its hyper-violent, obscene surface. That it follows the bloody rise of Tony Montana is a well-established fact, and the film has seeped its way into the collective consciousness so much that discussing the finer points of the plot here would be something of a moot point (how many people can quote lines who have never seen the crime epic all the way through). And besides, Scarface is more about ideas than it is about story, it has a compass at its centre that is influenced by both traditional morality and the law and rules of the criminal world - it teaches as much about not underestimating the other bad guys as it does about the perils of arrogance and over-reaching. But yes, though there are a few messages embedded in the plot, it is more a portrait of excess and exploitation whose style and preoccupations mirror its own plot, and it is about as gratuitous as it was possible to be a decade or so before Tarantino made all of that bloody business fashionable and even encouraged. But gratuity has its place, especially when the subject matter is so dedicated as a portrait of excess, and addiction: just as Tony Montana's infinite yearning for power (it is obviously more than just greed) is depicted on screen, there is no more appropriate a way to translate it than in over-blown excessive manner. So the swearing is louder, the violence bloodier, the sexual aggression more pronounced, and that is precisely why the film endures. It could have been no more than a cult classic, driven to moderate success and a footnote legacy by brainless exploitation, but the fact that it lives on even now to be cherished by modern audiences tell the tale of its lasting effect. And that is firmly down to the fact that scratching under the skin reveals a surprising amount about the film and its perfect portrait of fatal megalomania. Oliver Stone is perhaps better known for far more politicised material - and these days you might expect something more overtly critical than Scarface, but it seems in Tony Montana that the writer/director found a character he couldn't write atonement for on the grounds of being a product of some other wider failure of society. Because Montana, brilliantly is completely unresolved: his evil is unexplained, and the fire that burns within him is never rationalized other than as a compulsion, partly driven by his egotism (though that never feels fully satisfactory) - he is purely, simply evil, and intent on rising to the top of his sordid world by any means possible. He is Macbeth, only without the excuse of the malignant machinations of his scheming Lady, or Othello without the sins against him based on his race, or the puppetry of Iago - and while those Shakespearean creations are invariably praised for the mastery that it took to write them, it is arguably the more difficult task to write a character so irredeemable who still demands the attentions of the audience as wholly as Montana does. That achievement also has a lot to do with the performance of one Al Pacino, snarling, snapping, spitting his way through the film in such an overbearing way that it becomes less a film about a character called Tony Montana and more an extended portrait of just what Pacino can do at his most animated. Without Pacino there can be no Montana, not at this hyperactive level anyway, and despite this being a remake, it is almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. And despite how much the film belongs to Pacino, it is thanks to the strength of Brian de Palma's tight direction that the hyperbole of that performance is relayed in his terms. That hail of bullets that ends Montana is exactly the way Scarface had to end: all of Montana's desires, all of his compulsions are completely empty: because he is so narcissistic, there is no sense in his desire for Elvira, nor in his wish to extend his family name to a son other than because the kingpin wants them. There is no conquest too small to prick his interest, because as with the film itself, Montana is addicted to the appeals of excess, and no fruits nor spoils could ever satiate his perpetual reach. So an explosive, fatal end, excessive and blackly glorious in its own way is the perfect send off for him. And so ends one of the greatest cult classics ever, a film that will endure several more media transitions in future to remain an essential part of every movie fan's collection, but the real question is how does it fair for now on blu-ray?

Quality

It is perhaps only fair to start of this section with the assertion that Scarface is an old film, and it is becoming increasingly rare to find anything from more than twenty years ago that particularly shines in high-definition in comparison to modern offerings: rather it is more appropriate to judge them in terms of how much better they are than their earlier incarnations on DVD. Because in the first terms, Scarface isn't brilliant - there are a lot of obvious clean-up tricks that leave unwanted ghosts, or wipe away detail and contrast in black levels most obviously; like taking a cloth rag soaked in white spirit to clean some dust off the Mona Lisa - but in the second it is a lot better. But as I say, this is easily the best the film has ever looked, and when it is on form, the transfer is strong, particularly for one so old. Textures and detail are both good for the most part, though in darker scenes it all evaporated quite worryingly, particularly black levels which are well contrasted and deep in light scenes, but quite the opposite when they fade. And while the Universal back-catalogue label usually comes with considerable consternation round these parts, but this is one high-definition showcase from that stable that works very well. The audio quality is much the same, and in terms of a film released in 1983, it ports across very well to a 2011 blu-ray. Dialogue is clear and crisp, explosions and gun-fire are nice and proud, and as long as the '83 caviat is remembered, the transfer can be classed as a straight up success.

Extras

A great selection of additional material, and a great celebration of the film's anniversary. The highlight is easily the Picture-in-Picture feature which goes in to a surprising amount of depth concerning behind the scenes information, including the wider cultural significance of the film and its reception at the time of release and now. Some of the additional material might feel like little more than promos, but overall it is a very strong release though it is an enormous shame that the UK release doesn't include the Howard Hawks 1932 original, as the American release does. But then it's still easy enough to pick that film up separately for a few pounds. Spring for the £44.99 Cigar Box Special Edition and you'll get the following: Hinged rigid cigar-style boxset with belly band and vac foam tray Steelbook limited edition: Triple Play Blu-ray €˜The Making of Scarface€™ exclusive booklet including stills and production notes Tony Montana signature money clip Green card envelope including Tony Montana dollar bill, green card and 3 exclusive artcards And the Special Features on the ordinary release themselves stack up as follows: The Scarface Phenomenon Deleted Scenes The World of Tony Montana The Rebirth The Acting The Creating Scarface: The TV Version The Making of Scarface: The Video Game Scarface is available to buy on Blu-ray now.
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