There’s a scene in Capone when Al Capone, the legendary gangster formerly known as “public enemy number one,” is chasing a group of kids around his Florida mansion. The year is 1946, nearly 11 years after he was sentenced to prison for tax evasion, and now he’s hobbling through corridors, unable to keep up with five-year-old children.
The film, laced with murky dialogue and twists, is a drama about the gangster’s final days. Written and directed by Josh Trank (Chronicle, Fantastic Four), Capone attempts to combine Herzogian madness with a “Hey, look at me!” leading performance. Tom Hardy does it all as the titular character: growling, drooling, snot, yelling, snotty yelling. He even performs a couple scenes in a pile of his own crap. If his hard work was in service of a better picture, we might be talking about him come Oscar season.
If only. While Capone is a rich character for movies (he’s appeared in dozens of blockbusters), Trank’s biopic reduces him to an Everyman. Looked after by his wife (Linda Cardellini), Capone spends his afternoons rotting in a backyard lined with timeless statues that taunt his decay. When syphilis gets the best of him, he becomes paranoid of those working on the estate. Could they know about the ten million dollars stashed somewhere on the grounds? Unlikely. He doesn’t even remember where the money is. That doesn’t stop a paranoid, attention-seeking madman from snarling lines like “Look! They’re watching us,” as he points to nothing.
Capone incoherently bounces between reality and hallucinations, recounting highlights – or low lights, as the case may be – of his rise to power. These include Capone gunning down a Prohibition era party, henchmen stabbing people to death and illegal business decisions with an old friend (Matt Dillon). One suspects these random flashback sequences, oddly suffused with David Lynch weirdness, are supposed to tell us that Capone feels guilty about his murderous past, yet there’s no dialogue or characterization to back up our assumptions.
In reality, Capone is too much a cartoon for us to care about his past or present. Too much of Hardy’s performance is showboating, without any of the nuance we’ve come to expect from such a talented performer. One dinner scene is so indulgent it borders on parody. Surrounded by family members, including brother (Al Sapienza) and son (Noel Fisher), Capone eyes someone cutting their steak, then proceeds to let out a howl worthy of a mountain lion’s. Cut to awkward reaction shots, followed by Hardy doing his best impression of someone having a stroke.
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The movie is filled with outrageous moments like these, including a subplot involving gumshoe detectives. Listening in on Capone’s bizarre behavior, you don’t have to imagine the look on the FBI’s faces when they overhear disgusting defecating. Closeups of detectives tell us all we need to know, though one agent (Jack Lowden) still thinks he’s faking it. Yeah, right. He’s really just determined to find that $10 million.
Far from being a race to the finish – with two parties searching for lost treasure – the mystery doesn’t hold much suspense. Once Capone starts having hallucinations, the hidden-treasure plot thread is sidelined so that Hardy can take center stage. One sequence sees the actor, doused in sweat, singing “If I Were the King of the Forest” from Wizard of Oz with his wife. Another, more welcome pedestal, comes in a dream sequence: Capone, devouring a carrot, eyes squinting in the summer sun, unloads a gold-plated tommy gun on defenseless workers at his estate. Like everything else in the film, off-kilter framing adds unease, while a sympathy for the crazed gunman is glaringly obvious.
Most frustrating is Trank’s sentimental view of Capone, a figure the director has said he relates to. Having skyrocketed to fame with Chronicle in his early 20’s, Fantastic Four, a comic book flop, reduced him to exile just as fast. But public vilification for directors and gangsters are two different things, and sympathy for the devil only works when your villain has moral vindication (see: The Irishman).
“What’s the difference between Capone and Hitler?” asks an FBI agent late in the run time. “Hitler is dead.” What’s the difference between Capone and better Al Capone movies? This one’s dead on arrival.
Tom Hardy does it all as Capone: growling, drooling, snot, yelling, snotty yelling. If his performance was in service of a better picture, we might even be talking about him during Oscar season.