[box cover]


Universal Home Video

Starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer,
Michelle Pfeiffer, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Written by Oliver Stone
Directed by Brian DePalma

Back to Review Index

Back to Quick Reviews

In 1980, Cuban president Fidel Castro granted thousands of Cubans permission to join their expatriated relatives in the United States. However, the bearded dictator had actually launched a private joke — a high percentage of the Cubans who subsequently flooded into Miami were ex-convicts.

Awaiting the American government's approval to begin a new life in America, a bustling horde of new arrivals is crammed into fenced camps. When Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is offered a ticket out, he takes it. That it requires killing another camp inhabitant doesn't cause him to flinch at all. After all, the victim is former communist heavy, and Tony is as staunch a capitalist as they come.

Tony tears through the American dream with the uncompromising principle and ruthlessness of a pit bull, and a reckless attraction to grandiose ideas. He rises through the ranks of the Miami drug trade like a criminal Messiah. Although warned by his mentor that success depends on a low profile, Tony is a hopeless extrovert. He finds great promise in the slogan "The World is Yours," and he wants the world to know that it belongs to him.

The most common criticism of Brian De Palma's Scarface — that Pacino and the overall style of the film are too cartoony for its epic length — is short-sighted. Pacino's performance as Tony is a tour de force. Although often loud and overbearing, Pacino also shows remarkable calm and humor under pressure. Every grand gesture is given incredible life by a thousand subtleties. As for the visual style of the film, there is no defense for the tacky, pastel opulence of Miami, but it's a vivid backdrop, and it's indivisible from Tony's carefree indulgence in booze, drugs, fast cars, and the occasional tiger. In fact, it's miraculously uncartoony, with DePalma demonstrating an amazing control of his bad cinematic habits. For once, he lets the story grow without his trademark intrusive camera tricks.

Written by Oliver Stone, Scarface was a prescient foreshadowing of the rampant and conspicuous greed that would mark American culture in the 1980s. Remarkably, early in his career, Stone was predicting history, not revising it, and the strength of his dialogue and characterizations give a solid (if overlong) foundation which Pacino, with his many skills as an actor, can shine.

Although playing the head of a crime organization is familiar territory for Pacino, trying to find similarities in his Tony Montana and his Michael Corleone from the Godfather series could make you go wall-eyed. Michael was a reluctant boss with a cold veneer, always subverting his emotions for the sake of business. A polar opposite, Tony Montana frequently subverts his shrewd business sense, succumbing to rage and indignation, calculating consequences long after he takes action, and burying his head in a pile of cocaine when the consequences don't look promising. Although Tony's dramatic arc is much less tragic and complicated than Michael Corlene's, his drastic rise and fall are still exhilarating due to Pacino's brilliant performance.

Sadly, though, a few of the other principal actors in Scarface aren't remotely close Pacino's level. Michelle Pfeiffer is lost in a thankless role as Tony's American-born moll, but the worst casting is a result of Hollywood's reluctance to cast Hispanic actors in Hispanic roles. Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio is awful in her screen debut, with an accent that never sticks with any one ethnicity and a makeup job that recalls The Bride of Frankenstein. Next-to-worst accent award goes to Stephen Bauer as Tony's right-hand-man, Manny. Incredibly, Bauer's bio claims he was born in Cuba. His parents must have been visiting at the time.

Scarface is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, but from a so-so source print, and the transfer is not without an occasional shimmer. Moreover, the Dolby 2.0 mix is a little muddled. In all, it's not so hot for a Universal "Collector's Edition." Extras include some dull outtakes, a "making-of" documentary, trailers, and textual supplements.

— Gregory P. Dorr

Get it at Reel.com

Back to Review Index

Back to Quick Reviews

Back to Main Page

© 1998-99, The DVD Journal