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Road to Perdition   B+

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: David Self (based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Tyler Hoechlin, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Review by Rob Vaux
"I ain't askin' for permission, I'm tellin' you as a courtesy: I need to do this thing, so it's gonna get done."
--Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), Miller's Crossing

Ah, the mobster's creed, the ruthless code of honor that sets them apart from run-of-the-mill criminals. Movie gangsters always have a sense of foreboding about them: unable to escape their own rules of conduct, making epic tragedy out of their tawdry bootlegging or cheap extortion. They use twisted logic to excuse bloody deeds, which sends them on the irreversible path to their own destruction. Polito's Johnny Caspar learned all about that path, as did Michael Corleone, Little Caesar, and a thousand other gangsters before them. Now comes Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), the hitman protagonist of Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition, and as doom-laced a soul as you're likely to find. He inhabits a movie that wants to be great, tries to be great, and on a certain level is great... though perhaps a tad too slick for its own good. But then, isn't that always the way with gangsters?

Road to Perdition has some serious muscle in its corner -- there are nearly a dozen Oscars among the main players -- leading rasher critics to make quick comparisons to The Godfather. That's a little hasty. In fact, its closest cousin is actually the Coens' sardonic Miller's Crossing, a less lionized gangster picture that revels in craft and technique. Road to Perdition uses the same approach: it's in love with its look and the way its story is conveyed in purely visual terms. At times, it makes you weep with the beauty of it, presenting us with images and characters that are impossible to forget. Yet like Miller's Crossing, it sometimes appears too polished, the pieces fitting together too neatly. The Coens made up for it with a satirical, almost whimsical tone; Road to Perdition instead falls back on strong performances and the looming tragedy that its characters seem destined for. It's quite an accomplishment, but it never quite escapes the lingering artifice of it all, which ultimately beggars an age-old refrain: impressive, yes, but is it art?

Certainly, it looks like art. This is a film lover's film, shot with an exquisite hand and orchestrated with quiet confidence by Mendes. It also has a brilliant turn from Hanks, an often overrated actor who for once makes good on all his hype. Sullivan retains Hanks' sympathetic everyman qualities, while wrapping them around a brutal killer serving a power-hungry mob boss. How can such a sad face surround such soulless eyes? Hanks never lets us forget what this man has done -- or what he intends to do -- while still retaining our sympathies.

Sullivan is doted upon by Irish bootlegger John Rooney (Paul Newman, aging like fine wine), whose own son Connor (Daniel Craig) has been a big disappointment. Still, blood flows thicker than whiskey, and John turns a blind eye to Connor's theft and embezzlement... even when it causes rifts in his organization. Trouble arises when Sullivan's eldest son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) witnesses a gangland execution perpetrated by Connor's schemes. Driven by envy and the need to cover his tracks, Connor tries to wipe the Sullivan family out, but only partially succeeds, leaving the two Michaels alive... and a formerly loyal hitman bent on revenge.

Once the basic plot is set, the characters seem locked into their roles. Sullivan needs to wipe out the men threatening his last relation, while at the same time preventing the boy from growing up to become a killer, John must protect his own son from Sullivan's rage, and Connor must avoid the bloody consequences of his actions. They all know where it leads, but there is little any of them can do to stop it. The inescapable structure of their dilemma is the principle reason Road to Perdition falls just short of greatness. We can see how well the plot works, how clever and well-oiled it is... and yet by noticing it, we lose some of its spark. It becomes a technical exercise, an enjoyable experience that never entirely connects with us the way it should. Perhaps the best example lies in the character of Maguire (Jude Law), a slightly addled assassin sent to finish the job Connor started. It's an impressive performance -- one of many in the film -- and yet it never quite coalesces, feeling more like a series of entertaining quirks than a genuine character. Many aspects of Road to Perdition come across the same way.

Still, there's a hell of a lot to like here... and even love if you're inclined. The film looks gorgeous; cinematographer Conrad L. Hall has crafted one gorgeous scene after another, and Mendes skillfully meshes the drama with the impressive visual cues. Thomas Newman's haunting score accentuates the atmosphere beautifully, and the story is always smart and engaging. Thanks to Hanks and the rest of the cast, we believe in it enough to readily ignore the handsome deus ex machina around them. In light of all that, it feels unfair to criticize Road to Perdition for its shortcomings. Indeed, they're not even shortcomings in the strictest sense: merely stylistic choices that tug uncomfortably on the edges of our mind. Filmmaking on this level doesn't come along every day, and we should appreciate it for the joys it brings. If only it could let us dive in unabashed, to revel in it without thought for the distracting shine on its surface. Truth be told, I loved every frame of Road to Perdition. I'm just not certain that it's art.

Review published 07.15.2002.

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