“Capone” messily rages against the dying of the light

Capone Tom Hardy in Capone (Vertical Entertainment)

Josh Trank’s comeback stars Tom Hardy in a balls to the wall performance that’s wasted on a weak, derivative script.

As many of us remain in lockdown for a third month, the release of the trailer for Capone was both unexpected, and delightful, like coming across a full shelf of toilet paper at the local grocery store. What a bright point of light it was to see Tom Hardy, wearing roughly six pounds of putty on his face, as Al Capone, the world’s most infamous gangster, who, as a parting middle finger to the world, left behind an empty vault, in anticipation that Geraldo Rivera would open it on live television and embarrass himself some forty years later. Does Tom Hardy look like Al Capone? Not at all, not a tiny bit. But what does it matter, time has no meaning right now. Up is down, black is white, if you’re telling me Tom Hardy is Al Capone, then fine, Tom Hardy is Al Capone, let’s rock.

Capone is somewhat of an event film, in that it marks the return of writer-director Josh Trank, who received overwhelming praise for his indie sci-fi movie Chronicle, and then proceeded to expend every drop of goodwill on his failed take on The Fantastic Four. Capone is a mish-mosh of biopic and historical fiction, with a baffling focus on the physical decline Al Capone experienced in the last decade of his life, thanks mostly to tertiary syphilis. It exists mostly to polarize audiences, as does Tom Hardy’s performance, which goes so far over the top that a new top had to be constructed. Should Capone end up being a hit, Hardy will end up among the great ham sandwiches of cinema, along with Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, and Rod Steiger in The Amityville Horror.

Capone takes place in the last year of Al Capone’s life, where he lives with his family isolated in a Florida mansion. Though only 47, he looks 70, and spends much of his days shambling around his house in a bathrobe, as his body falls apart and his brain gradually turns to pudding. Say what you will about Tom Hardy, but he never half-asses a performance, and here, he gives 150% to his role. The problem is that he’s not playing Al Capone. Hell, he’s not even playing a human being. He’s playing a hulking fairy tale monster, speaking in a voice that is all too reminiscent of Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist. Sometimes he hisses and snarls in Italian like he’s reciting Satanic incantations, which go well with the red-ringed contact lenses he wears that make him look like he’s possessed by the Devil.

Should Capone end up being a hit, Hardy will end up among the great ham sandwiches of cinema, along with Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, and Rod Steiger in The Amityville Horror.

FBI agents listening in on Capone’s home think he’s faking his declining mental faculties, but if so, it’s a hell of a performance. He shits himself (twice). He wets himself. He vomits into a wastebasket (twice). For much of the third act of the movie, he keeps a carrot sticking out of his mouth like a cigar, and spends the final act stumbling around in an adult diaper while wielding a solid gold machine gun. All of this is in service of a plot that seems to be about…well, I’m honestly not sure.

If it’s “crime doesn’t pay,” that’s a plot that’s been done many times before, in much better films, most recently The Irishman, another film that focuses on an ex-gangster’s autumn years, but with considerably less bowel evacuation. In fact, there have been almost no movies about gangsters in which things end well for them, which makes one wonder what new angle Trank thought he was bringing to the table, other than an overabundance of bodily fluids.

Much of the film focuses on various characters, both real and hallucinated, pressing Capone to tell them where he’s hidden $10 million, even though all evidence points to him not even knowing what day it is. He’s too lost inside the remains of his disintegrating brain, taking a walk down a blood-soaked Memory Lane. It’s a romantic notion that Al Capone spent his final days tormented by the things he did, but there’s no evidence that that was the case. Some of these scenes have an interesting haunted house movie tone to them (the haunted house being Capone’s brain, that is), while others, such as those involving Capone’s illegitimate son, are even oddly touching. But what is the audience’s takeaway supposed to be? Is Capone a monster till the end? Pitiful? Both? 

In The Irishman, we see enough of protagonist Frank Sheeran’s life to understand that he made deliberate choices that led to spending his final years alone and forgotten. It’s a tragedy, but not a pitiful one. It’s a hell of a tough sell that we should feel sorry for Al “killed over 30 people” Capone in some way, but what else are we supposed to think when there’s so much focus on his physical decay? By the time the movie ends, his face looks like a rotting turnip. He’s a sad, decomposing lump of flesh who can’t even control his bladder, but he also has a violent fantasy about shooting up his property, along with several people. And yet, after that, he has a tender moment with a grandchild. There seems to be a maddening playing of both sides of the fences here, ensuring that any criticism could be chalked up as simply not understanding what Trank was trying to say.

But, my goodness, Tom Hardy’s performance. He sweats right through a thick layer of makeup, which is proof of just how much effort he put into the role. There’s not a single doubt that he spent a great deal of time studying how people with degenerative brain disease walk and talk, though, again, it’s unclear why he felt that he needed to talk like he had Tom Waits lodged in his throat. Capone isn’t a failure so much as a puzzling mess, but worth it just to see Hardy acting so hard he can’t help but get a little bit of it on you.

Capone is currently streaming online, courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

Capone Trailer:

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