Scarface: Platinum Edition

Scarface: Platinum Edition (1983)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Featurettes, TV Clips
Rating:

For some, "Scarface" is the quintessential 1980s movie. It may very well be, but not for any great cinematic achievement. Brian De Palma's 1983 gangster epic put a face, namely Al Pacino's, to the undying quest for an elusive American dream. Glitzy, bloody, in your face and over the top, "Scarface" encapsulated the greed, frivolity, and, above all, the excess that pervaded the "Just Say No" era. It is in every way a product of and for its time, at once a Capitalist fantasy of rising from the dregs of society to the top of the food chain and a cautionary tale of paying the price for extravagant narcissism.

With a screenplay by Oliver Stone, the film is an update of Howard Hawks' 1932 classic, which starred Paul Muni as Italian gangster Tony Camonte (inspired by Al Capone) who rises and falls as a result of his own lust for power. Stone successfully moves the story from Prohibition-era Chicago to Miami after the Cuban Boat Lift that saw the immigration of thousands of Cuban refugees. The basic skeleton of Hawks' original is followed, as Tony Montana (Al Pacino) and his friend Manny Ribera (Steven Bauer) take on small time crime jobs and slowly work their way up the ladder of the drug underworld. Their association with drug kingpin Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) introduces them to a flashy world of luxury and wealth, the dream they have been longing for all their lives.

Over the course of his rise to power, the one thing that consistently eludes Tony is love. He is rejected by his mother (Miriam Colon) because of his corrupt lifestyle. His self-absorption prevents him from being able to relate intimately with anyone else. Even Lopez's mistress, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), whom Tony pursues and eventually marries, only serves as another luxury, a beautiful decoration to parade around, but they lack any kind of connection other than a mutual love for cocaine. The only person Tony has true feelings for is his kid sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), though his overprotection of her suggests something beyond just brotherly affection.

What "Scarface" is best remembered for is its lavish grandeur. Everything in the film is exaggerated—the performances, the violence, Mastrantonio's hair. Pacino brings to his role an intensity that is devoid of any subtlety, a deliberate and wise choice for a character who sees the world in black and white. The opulence of the art direction and set construction is beautifully captured by John A. Alonzo's cinematography. In near operatic form, the action scenes explode in storms of machine guns, pistols, and even a chainsaw, all to the sound of a fantastic score by 80s synth master Giorgio Moroder.

The over-the-top excess of the film takes it to a level of camp that reaches its apex in a scene where Tony plunges his head into a heap of cocaine and loudly snorts as much as he can in one breath, lifting his head to reveal a small covering of powder on his nose. The image is enough to inspire outright laughter, and has indeed been parodied endlessly. "Scarface" could be the male moviegoer's answer to "Mommie Dearest," and like that film, when it's not grotesquely melodramatic, it somehow manages to be incredibly dull. Director Brian De Palma has built his career on flashy set-pieces and fluid camera movements, but he has been guilty on more than one occasion of neglecting the story and characters in favor of creating memorable visuals. The problem here is not so much that he neglects the characters, but that they simply are not that interesting to begin with. Tony Montana is an arrogant jerk from beginning to end and invites no real involvement from the audience. He simply lacks the moral and emotional complexity of, say, Michael Corleone.

After releasing what should have been a definitive edition in the "Scarface" Deluxe Gift Set, which included the Anniversary Edition as well as the 1932 film, Universal Home Video decided to release the 2-disc Platinum Edition. The 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio is preserved in an anamorphic transfer that looks relatively clean. There are a few specks here and there, and the colors are not always vibrant, but the print is apparently an improvement over the previous release. Reds certainly pop out radiantly on this transfer. The image is sharp and crisp, if not overly bright. Black levels are solid throughout. All in all, it looks quite good, but it falls short of exceptional.

Audio comes by way of both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. This is where it really shines, as the action scenes receive quite a punch from the surround distribution. You will literally feel like you are being ambushed as the sound of gunshots whiz back and forth from all sides. Giorgio Moroder's music is also done a great service here as it pumps feverishly from the back speakers. Dialogue is always clear and clean, with no detectible hiss or distortion. Well done, Universal.

The only bonus on disc 1 is a "Scarface Scorecard," a pop-up feature that actually counts how many times the F-bomb is dropped and the number of gunshots fired. I won't reveal the final number for either here, as that would spoil the fun, but the final results are staggering.

Disc 2 contains the rest of the special features, beginning with roughly 22 minutes of deleted footage. Much of this is actually unused, raw footage that was apparently never edited into the movie to start with.

Next is the 12-minute "Making of Scarface: The Video Game." This serves primarily as an advertisement for the game, focusing on the voice casting and character design. Unless you are a gamer yourself, this feature will probably hold little interest for you.

"The World of Tony Montana" is somewhat more substantial. At nearly 12 minutes, it boasts interviews with actual Drug Enforcement Administration agents and experts on the crime world who discuss the mindset and personality of someone in Tony Montana's position and how well the film depicts them.

The next three featurettes are all basically parts of one making-of documentary. The first one is called "The Rebirth" (10 min.) and examines how the story was adapted from the original film and what inspired the filmmakers to do it in the first place. "The Acting" (15 min.) features interviews with Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, and Robert Loggia and covers the casting and performance motivations. Finally, "The Creating" (30 min.) offers a good overview of the production.

The last feature is a brief look at "The TV Version" of the movie. Uncut scenes of violence and profanity are compared to the edited versions for TV, proving just how ridiculous overdubbing profanity can get.

With the exception of the video game promo and "The World of Tony Montana," all of the features on this release were available on the Anniversary Edition. Aside from the improved picture and sound, there is not a lot here to entice owners of the older edition to upgrade, but this is definitely the way to go if you are a first-time buyer.

Whatever its cinematic shortcomings may be, "Scarface" has permanently carved a place for itself in the collective memory of American male audiences and attained an enduring position in pop culture. Its absolute lack of restraint is an indicting reflection of 1980s excess. With his full-throttle performance, Al Pacino pushed his level of screen immortality to a new high that has yet to be topped, by himself or just about anyone else. In spite of the film's dramatic emptiness, indeed perhaps because of it, it is an immensely fascinating depiction of an unquenchable thirst for power. Tony Montana wanted the world, but for a desire as vast as his, the world may just not have been enough.

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