Some may find it silly, campy, or slight, but only because they haven't seen as many vintage B-movies as Scorsese. And Scorsese the cinephile understands what those films were about: a sordid mania underneath the respectable American heartland. And so, with hammy acting and blatant retro artifice, he hands in a thriller full of disturbing questions about morality, sex, guilt, and class. And makes it damn fun, too.
Robert Mitchum's Max Cady was scary because he seemed like he could be a real person. By contrast, De Niro's character might as well have been shooting lasers out of his ass by the time the film's ludicrous climax rolled around. I can't be the only person who thinks that it was Nolte who had to do most of the heavy lifting here.
Occupying roughly the same place in Scorsese's oeuvre that Dragon Tattoo does in Fincher's, Cape Fear transcends its 'for-hire' outward appearance. Not only does Scorsese craft this big budget studio thriller into his darkest film, but he also employs the most formally audacious camerawork to come out of Hollywood in the 1990s (right next to his own Casino). Unfairly neglected, this is the Scorsese that got away.
This a film that requires more than one viewing to really appreciate it. At first view you almost hate it but the more you think about it and watch it you realize how great this film really is. Scorsese has the ability to make unlikable characters earn your sympathy. De Niro is brilliant as usual in this film, even if the supporting cast lags at times, but nonetheless Scorsese keeps it all together.