Road to Perdition


Kirk Honeycutt
This review was written for the theatrical release of "Road to Perdition."

"Road to Perdition" is a rock-solid gangster movie with a fair amount of suspense, intriguing characters and bizarre bank robberies, plus a heavy dose of father-and-son dynamics, which is anything but a staple of the gangster genre.

This is the second film from theater wunderkind Sam Mendes, following his 1999 Oscar-winning smash hit "American Beauty." Again, he presents us with a highly stylized and skeptical look at the American Dream. This time, though, the dream of home, hearth and close-knit family is achieved through blood and terror: Daddy is a hit man for the mob in a small Illinois town in 1931.

Tom Hanks anchors the film with an impressively weighty performance as a man who doesn't take a good look at this life until it's too late. He is the movie's main drawing card, though the huge success of "American Beauty" will provoke curiosity about Mendes' sophomore effort. While this one lacks the self-conscious hipness and satirical tone that appealed to moviegoers in "American Beauty," the joint DreamWorks-Fox production should generate considerable boxoffice change.

Michael Sullivan (Hanks) works as an enforcer for crime boss John Rooney (played by Paul Newman, who makes evil look almost dignified with his white-haired, senatorial demeanor). Rooney raised Michael as he would a son and has given him everything he has in life.

Michael has two sons of his own by a loyal and unquestioning wife, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The eldest, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), now 12, has only a formal relationship with his dad. Rooney too has a son, a grown one named Connor (Daniel Craig), who disappoints his father by bungling tasks. Connor resents not only his father's power but his love for Michael.

One night, Michael Jr., curious what his father does for Mr. Rooney, sneaks into his dad's car and witnesses a man's murder. Everyone wonders if the boy will keep his mouth shut. Michael Sr. simply says, "He's my son." But others aren't certain. A hit man targets the entire family but kills only Annie and the youngest son, missing his main targets, Michael Sr. and Jr.

Michael takes his son to Chicago to see Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), Al Capone's "go to" guy. Nitti turns down Michael's plea to turn a blind eye to his need for revenge against the Rooney family. Nitti then quietly puts out a contract on Michael, hiring a seedy, Weegee-like crime photographer named Maguire (Jude Law), who moonlights as a hit man.

Father and son hit the road to Perdition, literally a small town where the boy's aunt will take him in, but in reality it's the road to hell, at least for Michael Sr. He can only hope his son will choose a different path when he grows up.

David Self's screenplay, based on Max Allan Collins' graphic novel, which in turn draws on the classic Japanese comic book series "Lone Wolf & Cub," contains surprising twists and macabre portraits of crime figures. When the boy at one point says he enjoys Bible stories, you realize you may well be watching one. For "Perdition" views the sins of both fathers with stern Old Testament morality, allowing neither to escape the consequences of his actions.

This is a dark, wintry film as the sun seldom shines and Thomas Newman's music themes repeat themselves as if to underline the inevitability of what is to come. As they did in "American Beauty," Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall intricately designed each shot. Everything is artfully composed without a hint of naturalism. Murders take place with stylized precision, the sadism becoming a mere abstraction. The palette is muted with a monochromatic look, and characters are dressed in dull, heavy clothes.

Hanks gets everything possible out of his character, a man sent down the wrong road in life before he is even aware of his course. Newman is the weary warrior of crime, resigned to his villainy yet anguished that he is forced by blood to protect the wrong "son." Law is almost cartoonish in a skin-crawling portrait of an eager sociopath. Craig embraces his character's weakness, seeing it as the only way to counterbalance his father's immense power.

Hoechlin, whose character serves as the film's narrator and point of view, gives a restrained and natural performance, a young boy torn between the need for his father's approval and horror over his dad's profession. At a very early age, he must wrestle with questions of morality and courage and whether one needs to be a chip off the old block.

DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox present a Zanuck Co. production
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriter: David Self
Based on the graphic novel by: Max Allan Collins
Producers: Richard D. Zanuck, Dean Zanuck, Sam Mendes
Executive producers: Walter F. Parkes, Joan Bradshaw
Director of photography: Conrad Hall
Production designer: Dennis Gassner
Music: Thomas Newman
Costume designer: Albert Wolsky
Editor: Jill Bilcock
Michael Sullivan: Tom Hanks
John Rooney: Paul Newman
Maguire: Jude Law
Annie Sullivan: Jennifer Jason Leigh
Frank Nitti: Stanley Tucci
Connor Rooney: Daniel Craig
Michael Sullivan Jr.: Tyler Hoechlin
Running time -- 111 minutes
MPAA rating: R