Road to Perdition (R) ★★★

Review Date: July 12th, 2002

A 1930s hit man finds himself the target of his own mob and, after his family is murdered, he sets out on a bloody road to revenge. Yet he may find redemption through his surviving 12-year-old son .Tom Hanks and Paul Newman act, Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directs, and the source material was a comic book--excited yet?


Hanks is Michael Sullivan: by day a devoted family man, by night a gangland enforcer in Depression-era Chicago, carrying out brutal missions for the patriarch of the Irish mob, John Rooney (Newman). Rooney also happens to have been a surrogate father to the orphaned Sullivan, and the actual father of a witless, conniving offspring, Connor (Daniel Craig). Connor causes one of Sullivan's jobs to go awry--and worse, the bullet-riddled outcome is witnessed by Sullivan's eldest son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin). Suddenly, the Sullivan family is marked for death by the Rooney clan, with tragic consequences. As Michael Jr. struggles with the horror of his family's murder and the knowledge of his father's bloody business, Sullivan embarks on a vicious, vengeful quest to even the score--discovering various levels of deception; encountering real-life Chicago mobster Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci); battling the eccentric, photo-obsessed hit man Maguire (Jude Law); and all the while struggling to salvage his son's soul as he travels, literally and figuratively, down the road to perdition.


Once again, Hanks delivers a master-level class in movie acting, creating a complex, compelling portrait of a tortured man awakened to the bloody karmic consequences of his violent occupation. Neither overt hero nor villain, deftly painted in subtle shades of gray, Sullivan is a new stretch for the double Oscar winner. While Hanks' inherent good-guy image helps you root for Sullivan as a protagonist, he doesn't rely on a charismatic bag of movie-star tricks--he creates a real, potentially unsympathetic character with blood on his hands. Few actors can rise to the challenge of wielding psychological command over Hanks, but Newman is perfectly cast as the powerful Rooney, another double-sided coin alternately oozing grandfatherly charm and deadly menace. There's no end of pleasure in watching these two cinematic heavyweights share scenes, even when they're simply exchanging portentous looks. Law delivers a revelatory portrayal, in what in other hands could have been a hackneyed movie killer, blending a loopy bounce and verve with pathologically sick impulses. Tucci, meanwhile, proves he is ever eminently watchable. Unfortunately, the weaker links in the cast of fathers and sons are the sons themselves. As Michael Jr., young Hoechlin is appropriately sweet-faced, innocent and earnest, but his darker edges and ambivalence toward his father never come to life on screen. As Connor, Craig veers widely between a weak-willed daddy's boy and a clever schemer, never quite bridging the gap.


In only his second outing since his magnificent debut, Sam Mendes delivers a change-up pitch, trading the heat, energy and acid wit of his first and Oscar-winning film American Beauty for a more operatic, elegiac tone. Gangster movies (even about Irish gangsters) tend to bring out the aspiring artiste in directors, but while this great-looking film is visually rendered by cinematographer Conrad Hall in beautiful, shadowy tones offset by scenes brimming with light and life--and the blood-red violence is artfully stylized--it lacks the pop, hiss and crackle that set American Beauty apart. This film is traditional--actually, near reverential--to the sturm und drang style put forth by cinematic cosa nostra chroniclers like Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino and Martin Scorsese, almost to a fault. Screenwriter David Self (Thirteen Days) adroitly expands and deepens the original tale put forth in Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner's graphic novel while staying true to the pulpy comic-book source material (and its inspiration, the Japanese samurai comic ''Lone Wolf & Cub''), yet too many crucial scenes have the ring of predictability. What's missing is the pitch-black, unexpected, edgy poetry now associated with Mendes. Perdition is an admirable effort bolstered by near-heroic acting, but there's still a sense of letdown when a Hanks/Mendes mob movie, while high-flying, doesn't soar to the stratospheric heights we might hope for.

Bottom Line

Road to Perdition is certainly a film worth watching, especially for the vibrant performances of Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law; the wonderfully rendered visuals; and the challenging moral questions. But it isn't perfectly satisfying, proving even a blazing Tommy gun can miss the bull's-eye.