In “Capone,” Tom Hardy, as the aging, broken-down, not-all-there Al Capone, acts under a corpse-gray mask of desiccated-mobster makeup, and he speaks in a bullfrog croak so raspy it sounds like he’s only got one or two vocal cords left, and that they’ve been burnt to a crisp. It’s 1946, and Capone’s days as the legendary underworld kingpin of Chicago are long gone; so are the eleven years he spent in prison for tax evasion. He’s now 47, a retired gangster, comfortable but ailing, teetering towards death as he drifts through the days at his creamy mansion in Palm Island, Florida, surrounded by federal agents who are watching his every move.
Written and directed by Josh Trank (“The Fantastic Four,” “Chronicle”), “Capone” is a portrait of the mobster as a burnt-out husk. Hardy’s Capone, who everyone calls Fonz (for Alphonse — the use of “Al” is strictly verboten), is blotchy and pasty, with a trio of scars on the side of his face that look like they were left by a misaligned tiger claw. His scowling lips are wrapped around a huge cigar, and when he takes it out it’s generally to growl like an animal, explode over some ancient vendetta, or retch into a bucket.
Capone is suffering the effects of paresis, a form of dementia brought on by late-stage syphilis. He’s incontinent, and his memory is going; so is his ability to distinguish reality from fantasy (at times the film slips into a sequence that turns out to be from his imagination). Lurching around in a red paisley silk bathrobe, Capone still exudes a coiled-snake aura of violence, but much of the time Hardy squints off into space with that stunted, vaguely forlorn zombie stare — the one he perfected for his blitzed-out-of-his-gourd performance in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” That you often have to work to decipher what he’s saying now seems an element of the Hardy mystique (the one he launched when he played Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” under that Humungus of the Opera face mask). Here you’re grateful when Capone blurts out a line in Italian (it’s usually something like “Go fuck yourself” or “Look over there! They’re watching us!”), because at least the subtitles allow you to understand him.
Is “Capone” a fascinatingly idiosyncratic twilight-of-the-mobster drama? Or is it a “Saturday Night Live” sketch with pretensions? It may be a bit of both. The concept feels original, even if it does suggest the last half hour of “The Irishman” crossed with the doddering-legend parts of “Citizen Kane,” all mixed in with Hardy’s apparent desire to play the creature in “Frankenstein.”
Early on, the film plants two seeds of intrigue. Capone receives a call from Tony (Mason Guccione), his illegitimate son, who no one but his loyal wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini), knows about. Will father and son connect? Then, Capone and a former gang associate, Johnny (Matt Dillon), sneak off to a fishing excursion, where Capone confesses that he has $10 million hidden away (about $130 million in today’s value), only he forgot where he put it. Now we know why the Feds have tapped his phones and are surveying his every move.
It’s a sign of the kind of film “Capone” is that neither of these situations develops in a conventional, or particularly satisfying, way. Handsomely shot and small of scale, “Capone” ambles along without catching fire. That’s because the movie, at heart, is shaped as a pedestal for Hardy’s prankish mumbly Method showboating. In one sequence, Capone sings “If I Were King of the Forest” along with Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion during a private screening of “The Wizard of Oz.” He also executes an alligator, loses control of his bowels during an interview with the FBI, and skulks down the mansion corridors hallucinating a party for himself in a sequence that’s like “Scarface Goes to The Shining.” There’s also a very savage flashback to the time when Gino (Gino Cafarelli), Capone’s trusty henchman, stabbed a guy in the neck 40 times. Why does Capone keep thinking back to that vicious moment? Because he now feels guilty about it.
He’s ailing, he’s losing his mind, and his sins are oozing out of him like poison. After a second stroke, he can’t even smoke cigars anymore; the doctor (Kyle MacLachlan) substitutes carrots. Hardy’s performance is starkly unsentimental, yet part of its fetishized authenticity is that Capone never has anything too interesting to say. Near the end, he finally gets his skewed version of a shoot-the-works gangster climax: Capone, chomping down on his carrot, hair standing up in the back like a clown’s, firing off a Tommy gun made entirely of gold at enemies real and imagined. From the looks of it he’s gone around the bend, but we’re supposed to think that he’s now in touch with the side of himself that cares. Frankly, though, there’s something a bit soft — too Hollywood — about how “Capone” turns the most infamous mobster of the 20th century into a guy with a buried conscience.