Judge Victor Valdivia runs the crime rackets in Tucson. His biggest moneymaker? Bootleg DVD reviews.
The man who made the Twenties roar! Now, after 45 years, his true story can be told!
Roger Corman is a low-budget schlockmeister who specializes in cheap exploitation pictures. Al Capone was a violent thug more famous for his aggression and ambition than cleverness and foresight. You might expect Capone, then, to at least have plenty of cheap thrills and fun sleaze. Sadly, Corman apparently viewed Capone as, of all things, his shot at a prestige picture. Thus, Capone got a distribution deal with Fox, a cast that included some big-name actors, and a slightly higher budget and better production design than most Corman pictures get. What actually results is a film that's nothing more than a cheaper, less adept rewrite of The Godfather.
Facts of the Case
In the 1920s, aspiring hoodlum Al Capone (Ben Gazzara, The Big Lebowski) embarks on a plan to rise to the top of the organized crime heap in New York. However, when he discovers that Chicago crime boss Johnny Torrio (Harry Guardino, Dirty Harry) is looking for a loyal supplicant, he decides that Chicago will make a better place to become king of the new crime of bootlegging. Aided by his enforcer Frank Nitti (Sylvester Stallone, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot), Capone becomes the boss of the Chicago mob and romances beautiful flapper Iris Crawford (Susan Blakely, Rich Man Poor Man), but is followed by violence and betrayal at every turn.
Capone is a crude, brutal, bloody film that tells the story (if not altogether accurately), but adds nothing remotely interesting. It's pretty much what you would expect: generic gangster hokum with plenty of blood and nudity, but devoid of insight or wit. In the realm of gangster films, it certainly doesn't rank with Goodfellas or Dillinger. For that matter, it isn't even in the same league as Mobsters.
Much of the problem with Capone is that the film doesn't seem to know what exactly it wants to be, other than a ripoff of other and better gangster films. It rehashes gangster movie clichés and wallows in lots of gore and nudity, but it does so with an almost ludicrous solemnity. It's as if the film wants to have it both ways, getting its rocks off with blood and sex, but then excusing itself by asserting that the sleaze is necessary because it's all based on a true story. The dialogue can't stop regurgitating the same lines you've heard before ("This is a business! It's not about violence!"), the shootouts and murders are violent but unexceptional, and the sex seems tacked-on as a shameless pander to exploitation audiences. Yet the film doesn't actually give any insights whatsoever into Capone as a man or even the reasons for his success and downfall. It just trudges through the main events in his criminal career without any emotional depth. Director Steve Carver (Big Bad Mama) desperately apes The Godfather, right down to David Grisman's musical score (which shamelessly rips off Nino Rota), but all the dull cinematography and humorless pretention do is highlight just how boring even the "edgy" parts are.
Capone also wastes a lot of time showing off historical detail, especially in its production design, but that doesn't explain why the film is littered with historical inaccuracies too fundamental to ignore. Nitti participates in events that place well after his death and Capone's downfall is seen as the result of a personal betrayal rather than the efforts of law enforcement. The character of Iris is especially superfluous—she's not based on an actual person and she adds nothing to the story, either by humanizing Capone or by serving as a notable character in her own right. Not only does Capone fail as a gangster movie, it isn't an accurate or revealing portrait of Al Capone's life and career, either.
The acting can't save the film. Gazzara's performance is one-dimensional, but that's because the character of Capone is one-dimensional. He's all bluster and bravado with no subtlety whatsoever, so there's no reason for Gazzara to ever modulate his performance. It's probably a fairly accurate depiction of the real Capone, who wasn't known for being especially astute or complex, but it does underscore that Capone is ultimately not an especially compelling figure to build a biopic around. The other performances aren't much more interesting. Susan Blakely is gorgeous and naked, but her character is pure eye candy, without any memorable characteristics other than her sexuality. Sylvester Stallone, in one of his early roles, is given some good scenes but seems strangely muted, particularly for such an iconic character. It's another sign of how much of a misfire Capone is that it can't even make Stallone as a murderous gangster all that interesting or charismatic.
Technically, the disc is not much better than the film. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer looks murky and grainy, even for its age. Part of that is because the film was deliberately shot in a dark style (in yet another way, Capone mimics The Godfather), but even by those standards, it isn't easy to watch. The worst shots by far, however, are the ones lifted from The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which are blown up and projected at a different aspect ratio than the one they were shot in. They look so awful that they're a huge distraction. As for the Dolby stereo mix, it's at least decent, with clear dialogue and well-balanced effects. As for extras, apart from two trailers and two TV spots, the disc comes with commentary by Carver. It's not especially illuminating, since he mostly talks about his career and only sporadically discusses this film. Of course, given the pedestrian quality of Capone, that's a perfectly understandable choice.
Capone is the worst of both worlds: too pompous for an exploitation picture, too crude for a respectable crime drama. It marked one of the few times Corman married his lowbrow aesthetic to a highbrow studio atmosphere, but given the lackluster quality of the finished film, it's not surprising that he didn't do so more often. Even Susan Blakely's considerable charms are not enough to make Capone worth watching. Read a Capone biography, such as John Kobler's Capone instead, if you really want to get the true story in an entertaining fashion.
Guilty of adding nothing of value to the subject or genre.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
Review content copyright © 2011 Victor Valdivia; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.