Capone

Tom Hardy stars as Al Capone in "Capone."

As movie theaters across the world remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, production companies throughout the film industry find themselves approaching a crossroads. 

Films with massive projected box office earnings and previously existing intellectual property like “No Time To Die,” “Fast and Furious 9” and “Mulan” are all waiting for the pandemic to end to be theatrically released. Films with smaller budgets and those that belong to independent studios now have a decision to make about how they’ll be distributed. One of these films is “Capone,” which was released to on-demand platforms May 12.

“Capone” follows legendary crime boss Al Capone (Tom Hardy) as he spends the final year of his life dealing with oncoming insanity caused by syphilis. While Hardy is supposedly portraying Capone, his performance is riddled with so many eccentric flairs and disastrous choices that it’s almost hard to believe he’s playing a human being.

That isn’t to say Hardy’s performance is bad; rather, it defies any attempt of being quantified. As he snarls with a voice that sounds like a cigar smoke-covered Tasmanian Devil, Hardy relates an energy so radically unpredictable and audacious that whether it actually succeeds to be convincing feels beside the point.

Hardy’s career is fascinating because his characters for the last decade have primarily been people with some form of visual obstruction or vocal oddity. Whether it be his penchant for wearing masks in films like “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Dunkirk” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” or his insane accents in movies like “Lawless,” “The Revenant” and “Venom,” Hardy has thoroughly committed himself to endless reinvention and creativity.

“Capone” features Hardy at his most extreme, for better or worse. The film gives him the opportunity to beautifully struggle with his loss of memory and pine over his past sins, but, in other moments, it forces him to literally defecate his pants on camera. While there’s something innately frustrating about Hardy’s roulette wheel of a performance, it’s also easily the most worthwhile aspect of “Capone.” Hardy’s efforts may fail in the end, but it’s honestly electrifying to watch an actor even attempt the utter ridiculousness of Hardy’s approach to the character.

The person who allowed him to make these choices is another notable Hollywood risk-taker: writer-director Josh Trank. For the past few years, Trank has been a pariah in Hollywood, acting as one of the greatest cautionary tales in recent film history given the failure of his 2015 film “Fantastic Four.” One of the worst major studio films of the past decade, “Fantastic Four” defined Trank as the poster child for a generation of filmmakers who, after modest success, were thrust into massive franchise films without adequate preparation. While some, like “Creed” and “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler, rose to the task, Trank came to symbolize major studios’ potential failure when taking risks on inexperienced directors.

With “Capone,” Trank’s given the opportunity to access the stranger aspects of his talents as a storyteller, albeit to varying success. While “Fantastic Four” failed largely due to the complete boredom with the material that the film emanated, “Capone” is loaded with the originality and absurdity that manages to capture viewers’ attention. At times, Trank’s style can suffer from a lack of direction that allows him to drift into a blatant David Lynch impersonation where he combines the grotesque and the banal simply because he can.

But, for all its flaws, “Capone” does manage to traverse its absurdity with a sense of professionalism and assuredness. In a way, “Capone” serves as a natural follow up to Trank’s debut film, 2012’s “Chronicle.” In both films, Trank attempts to apply an elevated sense of psychological analysis to a masculine genre archetype. With “Chronicle,” this trick works, as the film manages to transition from a supernatural high school comedy into a terrifying portrait of a damaged teenager inflicting mass violence on an entire city. With “Capone,” this approach largely fails, as the film can never find its center. 

“Capone” is, ultimately, unsatisfying and borderline incoherent, but there’s something to be said about its willingness to take chances. With a respectable cast, including Hardy, Linda Cardellini, Kyle MacLachlan and Matt Dillon, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where “Capone” serves as a straightforward biopic, granting Trank an easy return to filmmaking and giving Hardy a role as a notable historical figure — which the Academy Awards has a tendency to recognize.

Instead, Hardy and Tank made a film equal parts disgusting and inspired, attempting to reach something right outside of its grasp. So far, 2020 has featured many films far superior to “Capone,” but no other release this year has had its level of unvarnished audacity and disregard for an audience’s comfort, making it at least notable.

With its direct to on-demand release, “Capone” likely won’t reach a wide audience in the near future, making it difficult to forecast how it’ll be perceived by viewers. “Capone” likely wouldn’t have earned a large following regardless of the distribution process because of the strangeness inherent in its execution. But, for its stars and Trank, “Capone” will be difficult to classify as a failure; rather, the film serves as a missed opportunity that may be remembered fondly simply for existing.

Contact Chris Carr at carrtc@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.