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Featured Blu-ray review: Scarface

September 5th, 2011

Scarface - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

Over his career, Brian De Palma has never earned an Oscar nomination, but he has earned six Razzies nominations. Granted, two of those were for The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was a mess. On the other hand, he also earned worst director nominations for Dressed to Kill, Body Double, and Scarface. The average Tomatometer Score for those three films is 85% positive. Scarface is now considered one of the best gangster movies ever made. This week it makes its Blu-ray debut in a limited edition Steelbook, and a special Humidor edition. But it is worth the upgrade?

The Movie

In 1980, Fidel Castro allowed 100,000 people to leave Cuba to be with families in Miami, but at the same time, used this as an opportunity to get rid of 25,000 of the nations less desirable citizens, mostly criminals. Two of those criminals are Tony Montana and Manny Ray, two friends who did time together, both in the army and in prison. While in Freedom Town, a detention center underneath a highway overpass in Miami, Manny in contacted by one of his friends who offers him a way out. All they have to do is assassinate a former Cuban political leader who was involved in torturing dissidents before having a fallout with Castro. One of these dissidents was the brother of Frank Lopez, who is now one of the richest drug dealers in Miami.

That job leads to another job. This time Tony and Manny and two other men are to pick up some cocaine from some Colombians. The drug deal goes wrong, but Tony not only keeps the money, but gets the cocaine as well. This builds his reputation with Frank and the two begin a business relationship. But the night they meet, Tony sees Frank's girlfriend, Elvira, and he's instantly drawn to her. The feeling doesn't start out as mutual, but Elvira and Frank's relationship was falling apart before Tony entered the picture.

It isn't long before Tony's ambition drives a wedge between him and Frank and he sets out on his own. But as Frank says, the people who last in this business are the ones who stay low. Those that want it all, those that can't control their greed, they don't last. And Tony wants it all.

That's the main plot thread in the movie, the rise and fall of Tony Montana, with a few side plots like Tony's relationship with his family, his mother and sister.

When the the film was first released, it earned mixed reviews with a lot of critics complaining about the over-the-top nature of the film, including the violence. There were reports of critics walking out after the early drug deal goes bad and one of Tony's friends is cut up with a chainsaw. This was considered outrageously graphic at the time, but watching it nearly 30 years later, it seems rather tame. On the other hand, Al Pacino's acting is as over-the-top as ever. Of course, this is one of the reasons why it is such a quotable movie and why it is loved today. Without Al Pacino chewing his way through the ham-flavored scenery, there would be no Scarface. If he were more subdued when talking about cockroaches or his little friend, it wouldn't be half the film that it is.

The film is also extremely well made and it is not just excess for the sake of excess. It looks at the lavish lifestyle of Tony Montana and does so in a way that both glorifies excess and warns of the inevitable result. Granted, it does more of the former than the latter and I wouldn't be surprised if many fans enjoy it without watching for any moral lesson. You can watch the film to marvel at the acting or the lavish sets, or you can count the number of F-bombs dropped or the number of people shot. It works as a populous pulpy movie, and as a piece of art. Its rare to get both sides to work well and to work well in concert.

The Extras

There are lots of extras on the Blu-ray, many of which were ported over from the Anniversary Edition DVD. This includes the scorecard, a featurette used to count the number of F-bombs dropped and the number of bullets fired. (You didn't think I was kidding when mentioned that as a reason some people watch this movie, did you?) There is also a three-part featurette on the making of the movie, interviews with real life drug enforcement agents, deleted scenes, etc. There's even a featurette on how they cut it for television. It even includes the entire 1932 version made by Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson back in 1932.

New extras that are exclusive to the Blu-ray start with a nearly 40-minute retrospective with interviews from the cast, members of the crew, and even other celebrities that were influenced by the film. Finally, there's a Picture-in-Picture track that includes interview clips grabbed from the featurettes. I like the option to watch this with the movie or separately, so while there's little here that's new, it's still a great extra.

Moving onto the video and audio quality, I have some mixed news. I just reviewed the Dressed to Kill Blu-ray. That film cost just $6.5 million to make and came out more than 30 years ago, but the Blu-ray looked a lot better than I was expecting. This movie cost more to make and came out a few years later, so I was expecting it to look even better. It doesn't. It doesn't look bad, but it doesn't have the detail level I was expecting, especially in darker scenes. Some scenes appear to be scrubbed of grain, only to lose many of the details as well. Generally speaking the brighter the scenes, the better they look. There are some compression issues here and there, but even with the problems, it is still the best the film has looked on the home market. The audio is better DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track. The surround sound speakers get plenty of action, especially in the chaotic climax. It's not as dynamic as the average new release is, but one can't have unreasonable expectations.

There are also some physical extras to talk about. The Steelbook version has a set of postcards and a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $35. The Limited Humidor edition comes in a fancy humidor and has a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $1000. Unless that humidor magically refills itself with cigars every night, it's not worth it.

The Verdict

While Scarface divided critics when it first came out, it is now considered one of Brian De Palma's best films, if not his best. The Blu-ray looks great, considering its age, and has plenty of extras, including some new ones. The MSRP is not bad for the regular release, but right now on, it's just 9 cents less. I would almost assume that's a mistake. Keep an eye on the price before ordering.

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Filed under: Video Review, Scarface