Let's dispel right now any claims of "Road to Perdition" being an extraordinary, Oscar-worthy film, as its advertising campaign touts.
This redemption fable set against a 1930s gangland backdrop may be vividly realized by director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") and reasonably well acted by a talented cast. But while the picture's mood is inspired by the independent spirit of 1970s crime dramas, it's been given a send-'em-home-smiling, corporate Hollywood scrubbing clean. It has simplistically clear-cut (if somewhat cloaked) morals, it follows a rigidly predictable story arc, and it does not feature the departure performance by Tom Hanks that you may have been hearing about.
Sure Hanks plays an Irish mafia enforcer with a tommy gun and a taste for revenge. But he's a good and troubled soul, trying to save his 12-year-old son from the kind of life he's led. That makes Michael Sullivan very much a Tom Hanks kind of character. He may be sullied, but ultimately he's modest and heroic.
Having made these distinctions, it can be said that "Road to Perdition" is nonetheless an absorbing character-driven film revolving around a man whose criminal life has caught up with him. Any qualms Sullivan might have had about killing people for a living were feelings he stifled until the day his son, Michael Jr. (newcomer Tyler Hoechlin), hid in a smuggling compartment under the back seat of dad's car while he drove to a "job."
When the kid witnesses the three murders that follow, a terrible price is paid by Sullivan's family at the hands of the mafia kingpin's loose-cannon son (Daniel Craig from "Tomb Raider"), who's spent his whole life jealous of our anti-hero. Michael Sr. and Jr. escape, but their world has unraveled and there's a price on their heads.
The film doesn't do much to explore the spiteful depths of Craig's character, instead relying on his craggy-scowled bad-guy face to establish the man's seething over his own father's close relationship with Sullivan. Mob boss John Rooney (played by Paul Newman) has always treated the orphaned Sullivan like his own kin, and shone him far more favor than his own son. But this rivalry lacks anything more than comic-book dimension -- perhaps because "Road to Perdition" is based on a 1998 graphic novel of the same name, in which Sullivan (O'Sullivan actually) is a much darker character.
When the two Sullivans go on the run as the father plots his retribution, director Mendes tries to color more nuance into their emerging father-son bond, with mixed results. Hanks -- who has become fleshy, rough around the edges and heavy-browed enough to pull off this hardened but doleful character -- plays with conviction Michael Sullivan's emerging regrets and fatherly instincts. But Hoechlin is something of a blank -- a generic juvenile from central casting with the ability to emote on cue and cry "Paw! Paw!" without sounding too much like the cliché he is.
Where "Road to Perdition" gets the sheen of genius that's causing some film critics to fall all over themselves singing its praises is from production designer Dennis Glassner ("Bugsy," "The Truman Show") and cinematographer Conrad Hall, whose exquisite visuals bring remarkable definition to the film. Daytime scenes have a cloudy, overcast quality that reflects the moral ambiguity in Sullivan's heart as he tries to be a family man. The reality of Sullivan's criminal existence takes place at night, when Hall brings out rich, sharp and darkly vivid colors and sweeping camerawork.
Having shot "American Beauty" for Mendes, the two men have developed an elegant storytelling synergy so finely tuned that "Perdition" could almost be a silent movie without losing any of its potency. In fact, the film's most striking scene has no natural sound at all -- just music -- as Sullivan, hidden in the shadows of a dark and empty street, opens fire with his tommy gun on Rooney's entourage. Only the muzzle flash is visible before the camera slowly pans past half a dozen mobsters as they are riddled with bullets and fall to the ground. The scene ends with the image of Hanks' face, awash in the first pain he's felt in years from killing someone.
Interestingly, these are the only deaths that take place on camera. Working from a classic Hollywood handbook, Mendes and Hall wisely realize the aftermath of a murder can be a more powerfully emotional narrative tool than the act itself. This fact is paralleled in the character of Maguire, an eccentric and menacing hit man who has the Sullivans in his crosshairs (played with scene-stealing aplomb by Jude Law) and whose hobby is taking chilling photographs of corpses.
When Sullivan is focused on planning his own brand of justice, "Road to Perdition" is at its best. But Hollywood instincts kick in all too often, leading to conspicuously deliberate recesses built into the plot for father-son bonding moments, and a moral-of-the-story finale that is so obvious in coming and so full of sap, sentiment and misplaced sunshine that you can feel the hand of mass-market-minded studio executives guiding the screenplay toward banality.
Run time: 117 mins
In Theaters: Friday 12th July 2002
Box Office USA: $104.1M
Box Office Worldwide: $181M
Distributed by: DreamWorks SKG
Production compaines: DC Comics, DreamWorks SKG
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Fresh: 171 Rotten: 39
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Annie Sullivan, Liam Aiken as Peter Sullivan, Paul Newman as John Rooney, Daniel Craig as Connor Rooney, Ciarán Hinds as Finn McGovern, David Darlow as Jack Kelly, Kevin Chamberlin as Frank the Bouncer, Doug Spinuzza as Calvino, Jude Law as Harlen Maguire, Stanley Tucci as Frank Nitti, Kurt Naebig as Tenement Murderer, Duane Sharp as Father Callaway, Tyler Hoechlin as Michael Sullivan, Jr., Nicolas Cade as Boy Michael Fights
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