- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

"Road to Perdition" might be a suitable title for countless biographies about movie celebrities. It alludes to the fatalistic outlook of a mob enforcer named Michael Sullivan, portrayed by Tom Hanks in the second feature directed by Sam Mendes, a British theatrical phenom who won an Academy Award with his debut feature, "American Beauty," in 1999.
Ostensibly set in and around Chicago circa 1931, "Perdition" is another exercise in depraved American gothic, promptly confirming Mr. Mendes as the fanciest misanthrope among talented new directors.
Gravely compromised or conscience-stricken characters seem to possess a largely illustrative fascination for Mr. Mendes, already a specialist in portraits of the living dead. Unfortunately, the director has yet to liberate himself from a ghoulish tendency while demonstrating a taste for superlative composition.
The source material is a so-called graphic novel, which probably explains the famished nature of David Self's screenplay and the overcompensating tilt of the pictorial schemes favored by Mr. Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall, also an Oscar winner for "American Beauty."
Their follow-up collaboration emphasizes portentous, rain-drenched, camera-proud reveries on crime-movie motifs, extending from the Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney classics of the early 1930s through such recent pastiches as "Miller's Crossing" and "Last Man Standing."
It would be difficult to imagine a movie that looked more accomplished than "Road to Perdition," but its sophistication starts to pall as the scenario stagnates and the characters degenerate into taciturn, freakish, one-dimensional cliches.
The filmmakers seem to imagine they have discovered a freshly evocative, tear-jerking approach to the father-son themes of the ultimate gangster classic, "The Godfather." Sullivan, rather like the Tom Hagen character played by Robert Duvall, is identified as an orphan saved from the streets in his boyhood by mobster John Rooney, portrayed by Paul Newman.
The grown Sullivan has two sons of his own, Michael Jr. and Peter (Tyler Hoechlin and Liam Aiken), not to mention a gentle, unassuming wife named Annie (a nondescript role for Jennifer Jason Leigh). They live in a small house in the suburbs, engulfed in shadows well before it becomes a deathtrap.
Rooney has a single, unstable heir, Connor (Daniel Craig), a hothead without the redeeming virility and fearlessness of James Caan's Sonny Corleone. A rub-out that reflects Connor's homicidal rashness places the entire Sullivan family in jeopardy. Annie and Peter are slain. The Michaels become fugitives and even criminal accomplices once the father feels obliged to school his son as a getaway driver in order to improvise a wave of bank robberies calculated to force a vengeful showdown with the Rooneys.
The younger Michael narrates the blood-spattered chronicle, which showcases seven or eight set-piece killing sequences, so enthralled with their own illustrative affectations as we reach Set Piece No. 4 or 5 that they lose contact with any authentic semblance of violence and pain.
When Mr. Hanks makes his break with surrogate father Newman, the mob hires an eccentric assassin to stalk him: Jude Law in a gnarly facial makeover as a ghoul named Maguire, who has a day job as a free-lance news photographer specializing in Speed Graphic portraits of homicide victims. The professions tend to overlap: Maguire is not above posing some of his own victims for the camera.
In context, the fiend Maguire remains an afterthought, a deadly rival who is never a straightforward party to the basic Sullivan-Rooney vendetta that entraps the protagonist. Nevertheless, Maguire serves an oddly revealing function because he appears to symbolize the stylistic excesses of Sam Mendes and Conrad Hall as they accentuate the overcalculated ominous, violent or postmortem image at the expense of human interplay and sustained character delineation.
It's not as if Mr. Mendes is incapable of affecting moments. There's a memorable one when Sullivan joins Rooney at the piano during a wake, playing the right-hand notes for his mentor, who can only manage the left. The term "right-hand man" may remain permanently haunted for those who see "Road to Perdition."
The approaching acid test for director Mendes will be to orchestrate an entire movie around similar interludes, maybe without brutalizing or slaughtering any characters. I'm not sure he can shift the emphasis from exaggerated sardonic detachment to disarming and companionable nuance.
At the very least, he owes actors as skilled as Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law a richer run for their money when impersonating antagonists. "Perdition" scarcely rewards their skills.
There's something inescapably hollow about a prestige movie content to dabble in generic images of menace, magnifying a comic-book distillation of images synthesized from generations of crime movies, including the ones that weren't self-conscious or arty enough to deny themselves voluble and vivid criminal protagonists. "Road to Perdition" seems to envision damnation as a red carpet rolled out for dilettantes.

*1/2
TITLE: "Road to Perdition"
RATING: R (Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional graphic violence and profanity; episodes in which a boy is a criminal accomplice)
CREDITS: Directed by Sam Mendes. Screenplay by David Self, based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner.
RUNNING TIME: Two hours
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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