For nearly a century, tales of Al Capone's legend have titillated Hollywood. And for good reason. The list of notorious American gangsters is endless, but nobody's as infamous as Alphonse Gabriel Capone. Maybe J. Edgar Hoover, but that's another story, for another day.
So, after one hundred years of Scarface, what exactly is left to say about the man?
Josh Trank's third feature, (shot beautifully by Peter Deming) Capone, answers this question with a meandering fever dream dedicated to the twilight of his life, complete with strange vignettes interspersed by Al Capone (Tom Hardy) slobbering and shitting all over himself—in very expensive pajamas. And you know what, in theory, a character study that explores how one of the most wretched men who's walked the face of the Earth loses his mind to syphilis induced dementia sounds great. To peer inside a withering man's mind as he mulls over the harm he's done to the world and celebrates it in synchronicity, is just a smidgen tropish, but the hook is enticing.
The Irishman had the long runtime, old chums coming together for what might be their final hoo-ah, and that Babylon ting de-aging technology. Capone has the idea that this navel-gazing must take place in a flamboyant brute’s mind as it disintegrates, and he’s in a physical state that’s so diminutive, the 48-year-old man must wear a diaper.
Capone doesn’t live up to its promise. The film predominantly takes place at Capone’s Miami-Dade waterfront estate during his last year of life. His bid at Alcatraz for tax evasion gets cut short because of his deteriorating mental state and his wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini), son (Noel Fisher), various family members and Dr. Karlock (Kyle MacLachlan) tend to him. It’s understood the FBI is on the hunt for $10 million dollars Capone allegedly hid before he went to prison and was of sound mind. And a large portion of what little plot exists centers around the fact that he can’t remember where the money is and the FBI, who thinks he’s faking it, are looking. This inspires paranoia.
Tom Hardy’s reading of this version of Al Capone is confounding. He set out to play a monstrous person with vulnerability and nuance and in turn interprets Capone as a literal monster. Something that lurks in a dank lagoon and has a stank that emanates in color. What comes to mind is Vincent D'onofrio's brilliant turn in Men In Black where he plays a literal alien cockroach. Or one of the goblins from Troll 2—literal creatures with spindly fingers. Or Batman’s Penguin, a comic book villain, who lives in a sewer and likely has a stank that emanates color. Whenever Capone’s phantasms pop up throughout the film, there’s broad distance from the fact that he’s the architect of the murder and debauchery that haunts him. He just sputters about, sweaty and disgusting, wheezing in horror at the calamity, continually soiling himself. Is this man truly reflecting on his past, if he sees himself as a bystander to his crimes? Given Trank’s vision, it’s too much to ask for Capone to provide clarity, but, how about tension? Electricity? A story arc? Coherence?
Let me point to a scene that takes place in an FBI office, with a little under a half-hour of movie left. Agent Crawford (Jack Lowden) asks his superiors: “Do you know what the difference is, sir, between Adolf Hitler and Al Capone?” The men shrug their shoulders. “Hitler’s dead. Capone lives like a king in Florida.” When I was in high school, my math teacher, Mrs. Meadows would mark any answer on a test wrong if we didn’t show our work. Even if it was 2+2. Here we are, with the third act of Capone well underway, and we’re endowed with a version of Godwin’s Law, without the movie actually showing any work. Mrs. Meadows takes out her red pen...
Capone is a bizarre and audacious project. Kudos to Trank for his attempt at subversion, his probing of interiority, which perhaps would have been better suited for Random House instead of Redbox Entertainment. But, ultimately, the film is perverse because it’s a story about Al Capone without Al Capone. Imagine The Irishman, but not a sprawling epic, instead something that focused on Frank Sheeran getting sponge baths in an old folks' home, experiencing hallucinatory visions of some vague shadowy figure painting the inside of houses with iron and lead, Sheeran drooling, wondering who could do such a thing. Does anybody want to watch that movie? The juxtaposition of Public Enemy No. 1 and whatever that gargoyle thing Tom Hardy intimates in this flick is the secret sauce—the umami bomb anchovy paste that makes this a worthwhile narrative to add to the Al Capone canon. Without it, Capone is just beautifully shot, yet blandly told.