Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ciaran Hinds, Daniel Craig, Dylan Baker, Kevin Chamberlin, Tyler Hoechlin, Stanley Tucci, Liam Aiken
Written by: David Self, based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, Richard Piers Rayner
Directed by: Sam Mendes
MPAA Rating: R for violence and language
Running Time: 117
Date: 07/12/2002

Road to Perdition (2002)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Crimes at Midnight

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's appropriate that Tom Hanks plays a character called Sullivan inRoad to Perdition.

Hanks is a lot like the main character in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1941). John Sullivan is a talented filmmaker of comedies who decides to make something "important," something about truth and suffering for the common man. But Sullivan discovers that the common man already knows more than he wants to about truth and suffering. He needs something to make him laugh more than he needs nobility.

Hanks once gave us an enjoyable comic persona in movies like Bachelor Party, Big and Joe vs. the Volcano. And even when the films didn't succeed -- The Man with One Red Shoe, The Money Pit, Turner and Hooch -- Hanks came away unscathed.

Then he decided to do something "important." Who can blame him, with the way the establishment treats film comedy? (When he was nominated for Best Actor in 1988 for Big, he lost to the stammering, ticky Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.) He played a non-threatening AIDS patient in Philadelphia and won an Oscar. He won again for the Rain Man-like Forrest Gump -- perhaps the worst film ever made.

But comedians aren't supposed to be successful at drama. Chaplin, W.C Fields and Jerry Lewis tried it, failed, and got back to what they were born to do. But Hanks somehow succeeded, and with shaky material: Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile and Cast Away. The films might just as well have come stamped with a golden "pre-approved for Oscar consideration."

Now Hanks is back with another.

Road to Perdition is being marketed as a "very important picture" when it's nothing more than a slightly above-average gangster flick. It's not even as good as The Godfather Part III, much less the original Godfather.

Based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, Road to Perdition marks director Sam Mendes' follow-up to his Oscar-winning American Beauty. Fortunately for Mendes, legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall was available to pull his fat out of the sophomore slump fire.

Hall's so good, he often takes picture over from a director, like in 1967's In Cold Blood. He's done it again here. Road to Perdition is as beautiful a film as you'll see this year.

Unfortunately, the screenplay by David Self (The Haunting remake and Thirteen Days) contains more than a few holes. And the unstoppable tidal wave of a musical score by Thomas Newman overwhelms nearly every scene.

Hanks plays Mike Sullivan, a mob hitman who wears a haunted, sad look and has a wife and two kids to support. And even though mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) took in the orphaned Sullivan and raised him as his own, Sullivan remains in an on-again/off-again competition with Rooney's blood son, Connor (Daniel Craig).

When Sullivan and Connor have a talk with one of their disgruntled colleagues, Connor hauls off and kills him. Unfortunately for Sullivan, his young son Michael (Tyler Hoechlin) witnessed the murder.

Connor can't let it go. After a big "company" meeting, Connor sends Sullivan out on an errand designed to eliminate Sullivan; meanwhile, Connor will wipe out the wife and kids.

Both missions end up in failure; Mike Senior and Junior survive. Together they hit the road, attempting to avoid a cocky hitman (Jude Law) who photographs his kills. They decide to rob dirty mob money from banks all over Chicago before suddenly stumbling onto an accountant who has evidence against Connor.

The main problem with the plot is the original errand on which Connor sends Sullivan. Connor slips him an envelope to be delivered to an underworld maven: "Rooney forgot to give you this," he says. Sullivan must know Connor's a loose cannon -- why would he trust him and not check with the big boss first? If alarm bells are going off for the audience, shouldn't the cagey Sullivan be equally suspicious?

Even if you buy that, the movie's ending couldn't be more clearly telegraphed; a scene that's meant to shock comes dead on arrival.

While American Beauty was so fun, and had terrific, infectious performances, we may have proclaimed Mendes an interesting director prematurely.

Mendes does get a mostly fine performance out of Hanks -- a deliciously understated Clint Eastwood-stoic act, though the actor's typical yelping and emoting break through a few times. Newman does a beautiful job with a hint of an Irish accent and all the joy and pain in the world on his shoulders. Jude Law invents some great bits of business for himself, too. But the potent, passionate Jennifer Jason Leigh has never been more wasted in the "wife" role. (The most she gets to do is wash the dishes.)

While American Beauty had a personality of its own, it's clear here that Hall, not Mendes, is responsible for the majority of the picture. Every shot comes with his signature. Hall's wonderful moments include a shootout on a dark, rainy street with no sound at all, and an offscreen hit in a bathtub we see only after a mirrored door swings over to reveal it.

The entire film is bathed in snow and rain and darkness, giving us a tangible feel of space and time. (Another recent film based on a graphic novel, From Hell, had this attribute.) It's a movie future cinematographers should study.

Ultimately, the movie's a patchwork. Hall and Newman do their very best work, Mendes and Self don't try hard enough, and Hanks is in the middle -- or perhaps in the wrong movie altogether. Couldn't we switch Hanks with, say, Robert DeNiro in Analyze That? Wouldn't that improve both movies?

It's true, Road to Perdition does display greatness, and it's worth seeing. But it also comes with the laziness and arrogance of a thing that already knows it's won -- like the hare executing the tortoise and not bothering to cross the finish line.

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