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New Capone biopic shrinks bigger-than-life gangster, wastes Tom Hardy’s potential

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Tom Hardy plays Al Capone during the ignominious last few months of the gangster’s life.

“You know, this is what happens when people spend too much time in Florida.” — Johnny (Matt Dillon)

Periodically since Prohibition, filmmakers have been obliged to retell the story of that era’s most recognizable figure, Al Capone. The last one I saw was a docudrama on the History Channel, but the most visible is still director Brian De Palma’s 1987 The Untouchables, with Robert De Niro as Al. The Untouchables is more myth than history, yet De Niro’s performance captures the essential Capone, and even a cartoon rendering is, I guess, better than my kids looking at me and asking, “Al who?”

A man who was, almost a century ago, the most famous/infamous man in America, is now mostly forgotten, even though everyone recognizes the archetype he created: a larger-than-life gangster who had dozens murdered as he forged a $100 million-a-year empire on Chicago’s South Side. A middle school dropout, Capone was an ill-educated sociopath who tried to prove his intellectual sophistication by listening to Verdi and decorating his homes with lavishly expensive art, as though that could make up for the extortion and brutality he practiced on a daily basis.

In writer/director/editor Josh Trank’s Capone, Tom Hardy assumes the mantle once worn by De Niro, Ben Gazzara and Rod Steiger, but this is the most atypical Capone biopic ever produced. Instead of Al’s unstoppable rise, Trank concentrates on the ignominious last few months of Capone’s life after his release from prison following an eight-year stint for, of all things, income tax evasion. Capone’s twilight saw him confined to his Florida estate, his once sharp mind eaten away by tertiary syphilis, his stylish pinstripes and fedora replaced by an ill-fitting bathrobe.

Other than various medical crises such as a series of strokes brought on by the syphilis, this prolonged demise was fairly uneventful compared to earlier times. I anticipated Trank might occupy his narrative with flashbacks to Capone’s halcyon days, contrasting Al’s former swagger with the shell he had become. But there are no flashbacks, no opportunity for Hardy to show us the Capone of legend, only the sickened, dying man who can barely remember who he was, much less knows who he is. Instead, several fantasy/dream sequences serve as Al’s only psychic link to the life he once knew.

Hardy, confined mostly to Al’s bathrobe, stippled with old-age makeup — not too much, since Al was only 48 when he died — and delivering his lines in a barely comprehensible Brooklynese rasp, has virtually zero chance actually to play the title character. Perhaps the only vestige of the old Al is in the fact that the secondary characters in the story are precisely that, hangers-on whose lives are eclipsed by Al’s medical needs.

Linda Cardellini as Al’s wife, Kyle MacLachlan as his doctor, and Matt Dillon as a mysterious visitor from the past all give creditable performances, yet their characters know their only importance lies in the fact that they were part of Al’s mythology. Brutal killer that he was, Al was brash, loud and occasionally magnanimous. Even his own family and friends vacillated between loving him and being terrified of him. There’s not an instant in this film where I see that Capone, denying Hardy the opportunity to make as big a mark on the role as De Niro or Gazzara or Steiger, the latter being my personal favorite of the actors who have played the infamous Scarface.

Like its main character, Trank’s Capone sits in a robe and easy chair, surveying grounds empty of vigor and life, not sure how it got where it is, occasionally veering into phantasmagoric sequences meant to suggest, I think, that maybe twilight Al is kinda sorry about all those people he had killed. While I greatly enjoyed Trank’s Chronicle (2012) — but not his Fantastic Four (2015) — his Capone is mostly just frustrating, the intrigue it offers for those familiar with the backstory largely mitigated by thoughts of what Hardy could have accomplished portraying the gangster in his prime.

Capone is available via video-on-demand.

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