ROAD TO PERDITION
directed by Sam Mendes
with Tom Hanks, Jude Law, and Paul Newman
opens July 12 at Guild 45, Pacific Place, and others
It's not like this is the first time we've seen Tom Hanks brandishing a machine gun. (Have people already forgotten Saving Private Ryan?) As for all the media blather about his playing against type as a Depression-era thug, well, don't be fooled by the trench coat and fedora. Far more conventional than it is criminal, Road to Perdition will be remembered not as the movie where Tom Hanks portrays a hoodlum but as the movie where Tom Hanks wears a hat.
He wears it well, too, playing Michael Sullivan, the right-hand man and surrogate son to avuncular Illinois Irish mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman, second-billed for an underwritten part). Rooney's real son, Connor (Daniel Craig), is a scoundrel (we know that because he cusses in front of kids and smokes indolently while listening to jazz records). Why'd he turn out so bad? Perhaps he felt unloved as a child.
In Perdition's double-plotted family psychodrama, Sullivan's own 12-year-old son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), also feels unappreciated, acting out with petty theft and illicit smoking. When the evil Connor murders Sullivan's wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and youngest son, standard revenge melodrama results. (Having previously been gang raped, pissed on, stabbed, and called old and fat during her long, masochistic career, Leigh's comparatively straightforward early shooting comes as a relief.)
The murders sorely test Sullivan's loyalty to Rooney—if the mob kills your family, goeth the code, you're supposed to just suck it up. Yet Sullivan solemnly insists on vengeance ("What I have to do"), and his grudge against Connor draws the pursuit of a creepy hired assassin (Jude Law, scuzzed up with yellow teeth and bald cap because hit men apparently can't be handsome—or at least not more handsome than Tom Hanks).
Director Sam Mendes then packs the fleeing Sullivan and Michael Jr. into a Buick, making their road trip through the Illinois sticks an Occasion To Bond (even as they rob banks of "dirty money only" to blackmail the mob into giving up Connor). In a series of Edward Hopper vistas, Perdition gradually softens taciturn Sullivan as he finally reaches out to his diffident son. (There's even a brief farmhouse interlude out of Walker Evans where the L-word is uttered.) You subsequently avert your eyes not from the gory shootings but from the inevitable hugs.
After scoring an Oscar with his American Beauty debut, Mendes presumably had his choice of projects but for some reason settled on this adaptation of a 1998 graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins. Graphic novel? Please— it's a long-form comic book with 2-D characters. And what's suited to small paneled pages doesn't generally translate to big-screen pretentiousness. (Aiming low, Spider-Man works far better.) Perdition boasts the burnished period look, the lavish sets, the whole somber Godfather-wanna-be concern for family and loyalty, but all the money put into haberdashery would've been better spent on a decent script.
Since young Michael introduces Perdition in wistful past-tense voice-over, lauding his father, you know exactly where the movie is headed before the first shot is fired. Can Michael be saved from following his father's life of crime? Will Sullivan's guilty Catholic conscience ever find peace? And what about the dog?
Mendes makes these maudlin questions more deafening than the gunfire. Considering Hollywood's rich legacy of hard-boiled gangster flicks, Perdition comes across as a particularly wan, flat legatee of The Public Enemy or Little Caesar—where bad guys were bad guys and they were punished for their sins, dammit! When did we ever care about the home life of Jimmy Cagney or E.G. Robinson? Or their kids? (Miller's Crossing now looks a lot better for avoiding such mawkish domesticity.) In a movie about cold-blooded killers, emotional distance turns out to be the biggest crime. In that sense, his role is no stretch at all for Hanks; the movie's as risky as Forrest Gump.
Tellingly, Perdition's best scene comes early in the film while Sullivan conducts a routine shakedown at a dank riverside speakeasy. "You gonna frisk me?" he politely asks the bouncer. We laugh at this genial bit of professional advice from one goon to another. Hanks' good-natured integrity is perfect for the tawdry transaction, because he's so matter-of-fact about it. Then he kills everyone in sight, just doing his job.