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Directed by Sam Mendes from Max Allan Collins's graphic novel, Road to Perdition is pulp that aspires to Greek tragedy. The rain machine works overtime in this gloomy tale of Depression-era gangsters as they (and their sons) stalk each other through a sepulchral Chicago and across the bleak Midwest.
Cast against type as mob muscle Michael Sullivan, Tom Hanks is dignified and forbiddingif not quite Collins's killing machine, nicknamed the "Archangel of Death." Still, this dour paterfamiliaswho plugs more than one opponent point-blankis nearly a John Woo protagonist by the time of his last mission, and it's a shame that Woo didn't direct this potentially delirious material (itself an Americanized version of the popular Japanese manga Lone Wolf and Cub, in which the outlaw samurai decimates armies while tenderly trundling his infant son). Mendes's overrated American Beauty managed to be both bland and nasty; Road to Perdition is grim yet soppy.
Road to Perdition
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by David Self, from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins
Opens July 12
Collins spent years scripting the comic strip Dick Tracy, and his mythology combines big-city mobsters of the Irish persuasion with rural, bank-robbing outlaws. David Self's screenplay adds a bit of The Godfather to the stew: The enforcer's dark Irish destiny is apparent in the opening scene, a boisterous wake held at the vast home of his employer, John Rooney (Paul Newman, who squeezes out a memorable turn as a lovable codger with a papery voice and the cold twinkle of death). Mike is Rooney's spiritual son, and his own kids, Peter and Michael Junior (Tyler Hoechlin), whom he brings along, are treated as familythe brothers shooting craps with comfy old Mr. R.
All hell breaks loose after curious Junior stows away on one of his father's missions and consequently becomes a dangerous witness to a murder by Rooney's trigger-happy scion, Connor (Daniel Craig). "Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers," muses the master of blarney when he gets word of the debacle. After first seeking an audience in some grand marble Chicago mausoleum with Al Capone's second in command, Frank Nitti (played by Stanley Tucci with the practiced solicitude of a headwaiter), the two Mikes take it on the lam. The somber boy clutches his Lone Ranger "Big Little" book as he learns to be his father's Tonto.
Aside from reconfiguring a few names, Self's major contribution to Collins's cast of characters is the sinister Maguire, a tabloid photographer who moonlights as a paid assassin (Jude Law with bad teeth, an Odd Job bowler, and a tic lifted from the George Raft character in the original Scarface). Maguire, the ultimate media bloodhound, stalks Sullivan, and the movie peaks early when the two meet up in an all-night diner on a barren stretch of highway. Thereafter, as Big Mike and Junior bond, Road to Perdition takes a turn toward the rollicking, with occasional pit stops for father-son heart-to-hearts.
Mendes covers some of the same ethnic territory as the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing, albeit without the Coens' heartless panache. Road to Perdition is visually more coherent than American Beauty, but despite the burnished mahogany of Conrad Hall's cinematography, Mendes still doesn't quite know how to fill a frame. Like the Hanks character, he's a slow study: The action is stilted and the tabloid energy embalmed.
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