Posted inCultures

From Kingpin to Caricature: Capone (2020)

It took two years of talks, two more of production and a cancelled premiere but the long-anticipated Capone is now available on Netflix. Tom Hardy takes up the mantle from Rod Steiger, Robert De Niro and many more to bring the original gangster icon back to life in our living rooms.

Director Josh Trank’s reputation precedes him after his train-wreck foray into the Fantastic Four universe but his comeback puts an intriguing spin on a cinematic classic. Instead of beating the rather dead horse of retelling Al Capone’s infamous heyday, Trank’s version follows the final year of the gangster’s life as he confronts his troubled past and complicated present.  

A decade after being jailed for tax evasion in 1931, a syphilis-ridden Al Capone is released to live on his Palm Island estate under surveillance from the FBI, surrounded by assorted family, lavish statues, and a cloud of Italian opera music. Now redubbed “Fonz”, not “Al”, the Prohibition-era kingpin struggles with guilt-fuelled hallucinations, bowel accidents and a failing memory as he tries to locate a mysterious $10 million bag hidden somewhere on his property.  

Where Tom Hardy fans might have expected an Americanised blend of his Kray Twins duet in Legend (2015), his Capone is at first underwhelming and borderline cartoonish.  Trank takes regrettable amounts of artistic license with the iconic figure, of whom hardly anything is known post imprisonment. The classic Brooklyn accent is replaced by Hardy’s near-comic grunts and the trademark Capone cigar by a carrot. Instead of showcasing his baseball skills in De Niro-like fashion, Hardy’s Capone spends most of his time sitting down, squinting and occasionally cursing at the lawns of his Palm Island mansion. He once threatens to behead one of his gardeners, but this is about all we see of the violent flair of Capone movies past. This Capone certainly has his charm, too, as we see him playing with his army of grandchildren on a rainy day or singing along to a showing of The Wizard of Oz (1939); but these moments are short lived and become less frequent as his mental health gradually declines.

Hardy’s acting vitality still battles against the character’s underwhelming appearance and stunted script, but it takes a lot of time before we’re able to appreciate his efforts. As the film progresses, our hopes of seeing even a sliver of Al Capone in his former glory wear thin – as do the gangster’s own hopes as he flits through his memories, unable to pin down any sense of selfhood or presence. The result is, quite painfully, nearly two hours of confounded expressions and erratic mumbling.  In this losing battle one of the few redeeming factors are Hardy’s eyes which, behind the bloated prosthetics and pasty makeup, haunt the screen as they collapse the rage of Al, the gangster, with the desperation and confusion of Fonz, the stroke victim.  

What typical gangster action we get comes mostly in the form of flashbacks or hallucinations. We’re teased with a piece of Capone’s past in a fever-dream sequence at the film’s centre and later with a brief rampage of the now diapered gangster and his all-gold “Tommy” gun, but these blips of excitement and intrigue are short-lived as we are quickly transported back to Fonz’s depressing reality.  

By the end, for all its expectations the film feels frustrating and reductive. We’re found constantly second-guessing whether we’re in the real world or in yet another offshoot of Capone’s wasting mind. That being said, while the film isn’t short of bad screenwriting, its stagnant plot and patchy structure might partly owe itself to a subtle genius from director Trank. Combining our own frustration with Hardy’s striking performance, Capone gives viewers a taste of what it’s like to live in the pained shell of the once lucrative gangster and, more broadly, an uncompromising account of the reality facing stroke victims. 

The film has a number of subplots to keep an eye on, no less the search for the $10 million which, like its TV inspiration, The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults (1986), falls tantalisingly flat. It turns out that while the gangster was notoriously good at making money he was just as skilled at spending it, with no trace of the mysterious stash to be found since his death. Just about the only plot line that does tie itself up is the reunion of Fonz with his long-lost, illegitimate son, Tony (one of Trank’s more forgivable embellishments).  For all its sense of loss and confusion, the film’s saving grace is that it ends on this singular note of emotional (and narrative) fulfillment. 

All in all, Capone is not one to be overestimated: it’s hardly The Untouchables and it betrays just about every convention in the books when it comes to gangster films. If not for Hardy’s performance the film may as well be a write-off, but even his renowned acting commitment isn’t quite enough to redeem a shoddy script. On the whole, it’s a curious take on a well-worn story, but approach with caution and lowered expectations.