Road to Perdition (2002)


(director: Sam Mendes; screenwriters: David Self/novel by Max Allan Collins illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner; cinematographer: Conrad L. Hall; editor: Jill Bilcock; music: Thomas Newman; cast: Tom Hanks (Michael Sullivan), Paul Newman (John Rooney), Jude Law (Maguire), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Michael Sr.’s wife, Annie), Tyler Hoechlin (Michael Jr.), Daniel Craig (Connor Rooney), Stanley Tucci (Frank Nitti), Dylan Baker (Rance, Gang Accountant), Liam Aiken (Peter), Ciarán Hinds (Finn); Runtime: 111; DreamWorks/20th Century Fox ; 2002)

“It got the surreal look it wanted, but so what! The film was a soft crime story from start to finish.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directs this nostalgia crime story about Depression-era mobsters in and around Chicago. Mendes is not particularly good at showing the darkness that imbues the gangsters. “Road to Perdition” sets a good looking Edward Hopper bare landscape on the table, but the story is as phony as the CEO of Enron. The great attempt at a pulp noirish photography is attributed to veteran Conrad L. Hall, but even this seems misplaced as the more powerful photography smothers the narrative.

The Irish gangsters are unjustifiably romanticized and made to appear equal in American folklore with the Lone Ranger, though the film fails to show why. “Perdition” gets the details and the look of the era right, but its duo crime and coming-of-age story fails to resonate because it can’t get over the conceit it has about itself and the story makes no waves as it ends as neatly as any Disney film.

The 77-year-old Paul Newman provides the most watchable and anguished performance, but he’s not asked to do much except to assure the audience in a muffled Irish brogue that he’s not going to heaven because he’s a killer (going to heaven and hell is a big thing among these Irish gangsters and their families). Tom Hanks reverses roles to play a baddie, as he’s a tight-lipped and cold-blooded mob enforcer, but he still turns out to be a good guy who kills only gangsters who deserve it while also being a good family man. Hanks’ only wish is that his oldest son doesn’t take his ‘road to perdition’ (a road near Chi town) and become a gangster (he wants his kid to get to heaven). In actuality it’s not much of a role reversal for Hanks. When Hanks is on-screen together with Newman, there’s movie magic in the air as the two feed off each other to embrace their characters with all that they have. That I must admit, was fun to watch. The other big-name star is Jude Law, whose main acting job is to make himself look menacing and ugly (he has a yellowish complexion and rotten teeth) in his minor role as a cartoonish villain (there’s no character development). He plays the familiar movie hit man type who is artistic in his deviant work.

There wasn’t anything in particular to say that was great about this ordinary film, except it keeps itself alive despite so many scenes that are hard to believe or care about. Everything about this shopworn story is obvious and unmoving. There’s no feeling that any of this is real or fresh. Its most touching moments, supposedly, come about in showing the mixture of fear and respect Hanks’ oldest son has for him. To me, all that gushing seemed hokey and its hard sell made it all the more unconvincing; especially, since the kid could only act in one expressive way. I only felt left out in the cold, as these characters seemed emotionally distant. The weak melodramatic story was only bolstered by the film’s main strength — the revenge motive. As in most B-westerns the crux of the film is about the gunfighter going after his former gang who took away the only good things he had in life, and this film picks up that theme and plays more like a western than a film noir.

Screenwriter David Self works from the illustrated comic book novel of writer Max Allan Collins and illustrator Richard Piers Rayner. The film opens as Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin-he’s 13 and won the role in a talent search over two thousand others) tells in flashback while he faces the ocean with his back toward the audience his hero worshiping tale when he was a 12-year-old living in a Chicago suburb in 1931 and for six weeks in the winter he went on the road with his father, Michael Sullivan (Hanks), and got to know him (it sounds like a summer report an elementary teacher would assign). The orphaned Sullivan was given a break at an early age by suburban kingpin gangster, John Rooney (Paul Newman), and was raised as his surrogate son. He now owes everything to the gruff gangster, as he works as his trusted hit man. Sullivan is a good provider for his religious and loving family consisting of his wife (Leigh) and younger son Peter and Michael Jr.. Though his wife knows what he does for a living, the older son is curious as to why his father carries a gun to work.

Sullivan and Rooney’s aspiring to be gang kingpin son, Connor (Daniel Craig), are attending a wake in the big house of John Rooney. They are told by John to just talk with a disgruntled loyal member of their gang, Finn (Ciarán Hinds), whose brother was the reason for the wake. Finn’s brother was bumped off by the gang because he was accused of lying and cheating. When Finn accuses others of lying but not his brother, but Connor in a trigger-happy moment kills him. All the mob witnesses are rubbed out but Sullivan’s son, Michael Jr., who hid in his father’s car and saw the shooting.

John explains both the Sullivan kid’s and his own son’s actions away by saying “Sons are put on the earth to trouble their fathers.” The weasel-like Connor, who is cheating his own father’s organization, decides to kill both Sullivan and his son. His operative fails to get Sullivan, but he personally kills Sullivan’s wife and Peter in their house, mistaking him for Michael Jr., as Sullivan goes on the run with the surviving kid–he arrived by bike at the house after the shootings.

When the stone-faced Sullivan goes to Chicago, he contacts Al Capone’s right-hand man, Frank Nitti (Tucci), and is told by Nitti that the mob works with John Rooney. Sullivan decides he can’t let go of this, as Nitti suggests. Sullivan’s therefore hunted by the man Nitti hires as a hit man, a freelance newspaper crime-scene photographer, Maguire (Law), whose fetish is to get pictures of dead men. But even with this hit man in pursuit, it doesn’t stop Sullivan from seeking retribution for the death of his wife and son.

In another plotline ploy, Sullivan teaches his son to drive the getaway car as he robs banks that hold mob money. Nitti gets the effeminate gang accountant, Mr. Rance (Baker), to take the money out of the accounts and hide their assets in undisclosed locations. In a shootout in Rance’s bridal hotel suite between Maguire and Sullivan, the former takes a bullet in the eye and the later takes one in his shoulder. This causes the father and son duo to stop off at a shoddy farmhouse, where the rural childless and elderly couple ask no questions about the gun wound and good-heartedly remove the bullet from Sullivan. The old lady lovingly reminds him how much his son looks up to him, and that he’s such a good boy. When the recovery is complete Sullivan leaves them a satchel full of stolen bank money. The ideal Middle-American farm couple is tainted by the filmmaker just like the viewer is, as the filmmaker thinks what the couple did is wholesome.

There are many more phony and contrived looking scenes to come. The most glaring is the arty shootout in a well-populated Chicago street, where the unseen Sullivan confronts John Rooney and his bodyguards in a blazing Tommy gun shootout which seems to last forever and yet no one calls the police. It got the surreal look it wanted, but so what! The film was a soft crime story from start to finish.