Road to Perdition, The (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Tom Hanks as a cold-blooded hit man? Say it ain't so, Forrest!

Over the course of his illustrious career, which is well into its third decade, Hanks has played a cross-dresser, a man infatuated by a mermaid, the manager of a women's baseball team, a child in an oversized body, an idiot savant, an AIDS patient, and a man stranded on a desert island. However, during more than four-dozen TV shows and movies, he has yet to challenge himself with the most difficult role for a well-liked actor - that of a bad-to-the-bone villain. He comes close in Road to Perdition, but doesn't quite reach that destination. For, although Michael Sullivan is a murderer for hire, he also has a conscience and a soul, loves his family, and kills not because he likes it but because it's his job. In short, Sullivan is portrayed sympathetically. The script's positive spin and Hanks' instant likeability ensure that Sullivan will be viewed not as a bad guy, but as a flawed man. There's some darkness there, to be sure, but not the pitch black of pure evil.

The film, director Sam Mendes' eagerly anticipated follow-up to American Beauty, is based on the "graphic novel" (a term that is applied to a very long comic book printed on high-quality paper and sold in bookstores) by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. As with many adaptations from this medium, Road to Perdition stuns with its atmosphere and visuals, but arguably underachieves in some aspects of its characterization and plotting. The storyline is straightforward, with no twists or surprises, and the character interaction is not as multi-faceted as it could be. I was pulled into Road to Perdition as much by the setting as by the story, however; while the film never ceased to engage me over its two-hour running length, I failed to develop an emotional bond with any of the characters. Mendes' laconic, unhurried approach defuses much of the tension. If you're expecting an action film or a traditional gangster narrative, you will be disappointed.

The setting is 1931 in Al Capone's Chicago. (Capone doesn't appear in the final cut of Road to Perdition, although Anthony LaPaglia apparently plays him on the cutting room floor. Capone's right-hand man, Frank Nitti - the guy who ended up in the car in The Untouchables - is portrayed by Stanley Tucci.) Michael Sullivan is the number one hit man of suburban boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), who has treated Sullivan as a son since he took in the orphaned boy. In fact, Sullivan's filial relationship with Rooney is so close that the gangster's natural-born son, Connor (Daniel Craig), simmers with jealousy. One night, while Sullivan is on a job, Connor kills the other man's wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and youngest son. Only the older boy, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), survives. Father and son go on the road, searching for revenge, closure, and a way to start anew. But Rooney, recognizing that Sullivan will not stop until Connor is dead, ruefully hires another hit man, Maguire (Jude Law), to eliminate Sullivan (but not "the boy").

Road to Perdition allows you to feel, smell, and breathe the air of 1930s Chicago. To some extent, Conrad L. Hall is as big a star as any of the actors, since there are occasions when the setting overwhelms the characters. At its heart, Road to Perdition is a little drama about fathers, sons, and the covenants they make and break. Rooney betrays Sullivan to save Connor, even though, to the very end, he loves Sullivan best. Sullivan risks everything, including his life and reputation, to protect Michael. A telling conversation between Rooney and Sullivan italicizes this point. "And there is only one guarantee--none of us will see Heaven," says Rooney. "Michael might," replies Sullivan. Rooney then notes that it's Sullivan's primary duty to make sure that happens.

The movie's languorous tone rarely shifts into a higher gear, except during the shoot-outs and violent confrontations (at least one of which is filmed in a manner that is self-consciously artsy and pretentious). Still, despite weaknesses in the picture's emotional fabric, I like what is presented. Mendes' technical virtuosity and unhurried pace kept me involved. Although I never felt like shedding tears, I appreciated the complexity of the ties between the characters, and how the code of loyalty within a family sealed everyone's fate. Perhaps the thing I appreciated the most is that the filmmakers are content to tell this story at its own pace and in its own way without throwing in gratuitous explosions and action sequences designed to appease audiences afflicted with short attention spans.

Hanks and Newman give performances one has a right to expect from men with gold statuettes on their mantelpieces. Both actors must play deeply conflicted characters. Hanks' Sullivan is in a constant struggle to reconcile his job with his family. Rooney, on the other hand, is haunted by his own conscience from the moment he orders Sullivan's death. To the last, he is hoping against hope that his surrogate son will find a way out of an impossible situation. The rapport between these two is credible, but one would expect nothing less from actors of this caliber. It isn't beyond the realm of possibility that both Hanks and Newman will be up for Oscar consideration when the awards season rolls around.

The third-billed actor is Jude Law, although he has a surprisingly minor role. He doesn't appear until the movie is almost half over, and his total screen time is only a fraction of Hanks'. Law does an adequate job with what he has to work with, which isn't much. (Aside from the fact that Maguire is a "gifted" killer, the only thing we learn about him is that he has a fondness for photographing dead bodies.) In many ways, the real star of the movie is Tyler Hoechlin, who plays 12 year-old Michael Jr. Hoechlin, in his first major role, gives a convincing portrayal of a young man who both idolizes and fears his father. If a viewer develops an emotional attachment to any character, it's likely to be to Hoechlin's.

Road to Perdition romanticizes gangland Chicago, but no more so than other films set in the same period. And, like almost every movie about the mob, this one deals with themes of family, loyalty, and betrayal - albeit without the intensity of some of the great ones (The Godfather, Goodfellas). As was the case in American Beauty, Mendes illustrates how accomplished actors will respond to an assured director. Serious movie-goers embarking upon this journey will find that Road to Perdition leads to a satisfying destination.

Road to Perdition, The (United States, 2002)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2002-07-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1