Road to Perdition

reviewed by Steve Sailer

UPI, July11, 2002


On paper, "Road to Perdition" sounds more suited for an Oscar-qualifying Christmas release date than for its actual mid-July slot competing with comic book-based summer blockbusters like "Men in Black II."

Over the last decade, Tom Hanks' batting average at choosing strong projects has been as high as any actor's ever. He stars in movies that are often innovative, consistently well made, and always popular. His talismanic prestige has drawn tremendous talent to this solemn, slow-moving story of a soulful hitman who works for the Downstate Illinois Irish mob in 1931.

The sterling supporting cast includes Paul Newman as his conflicted boss who must choose between betraying his beloved protégé (Hanks) or his own rotten son (Daniel Craig). Stanley Tucci is superbly suave as Al Capone's lieutenant Frank Nitti, to whom both gangsters turn for help. The normally fascinating Jennifer Jason Leigh is wasted in a negligible part. And Jude Law plays "The Reporter," an evil assassin dispatched to murder Hanks' noble assassin.

Visually gifted director Sam Mendes is back following his Oscar-winning debut "American Beauty," and cameraman Conrad L. Hall's sumptuous cinematography is sure to earn him his tenth Oscar nomination. Their painterly tableaus are memorable, yet static, as if they were filming each panel in a comic book.

The wintry darkness of the first hour will remind you of how depressing the Depression was. Fortunately, the sun comes out as Hanks and his son flee for weeks toward Perdition (teaching each other the usual Important Life Lessons as they bond along the way). This metaphorical town's setting amidst the glorious Sleeping Bear sand dunes on Michigan's west coast makes for a striking climax.

Yet, nothing demonstrates the geekification of American culture more than that all these master craftsmen assembled to make what turn turns out to be yet another comic book flick. To be precise, "Perdition" is based on long-time "Dick Tracy" writer Max Allan Collins' "graphic novel," a term that means "a long, pretentious, and expensive comic book."

So, "Perdition" has the same old illogical plotting, countless killings, absence of real women, passionate but puerile psychology, and lack of sociological insight that you expect from a comic book aimed at youths who spend too much time in their rooms.

Fortunately, you'll be able to appreciate the film's numerous pleasures if you walk in already knowing that "Road to Perdition" is fundamentally preposterous.

For instance, Hanks wants to find and kill the man who shot up his family, but Capone's gang is hiding him. So, our hero devises the brilliant plan of persuading the Chicago Outfit to see his side of the issue by repeatedly stealing Al Capone's money. Warning: Kids, the Chicago mob might not be in its prime anymore, but, still, do not try this at home.

Worse, Law's character "The Reporter" is a psycho supervillain straight out of "Batman." He shoots people with his gun, then with his camera, and sells the gory crime scene pictures to the tabloids. I kept expecting Law to don colorful tights and a grotesque mask.

Hanks' normal on-screen persona as an average American Joe who succeeds by drawing on reserves of character he didn't know he had is intimately connected to his inspiring real-life growth from just another funnyman to perhaps Hollywood's finest citizen, a champion of the bourgeois virtues. For example, he sacrificed tens of millions of dollars in acting salaries to oversee his two patriotic mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon" and "Band of Brothers."

Hanks is classic baby boomer turned father, one who feels guilty over letting his career come before the two kids he had with his first wife, so he's working extra hard to raise his two younger children right.

You can see the emotional appeal of the role to Hanks. He plays a sober, hard-working, gentle, faithful husband and provider, whose biggest sin (well, except for murdering people) is being a little emotionally withdrawn around his sons. In a touching scene no doubt straight out of the star's own current home life, but anachronistic for his character's, the concerned Dad apologizes to his 9-year-old for having to miss his school concert.

Unfortunately, the family man elements that attracted Hanks make his character ludicrous. My part-Irish wife grew up on Chicago's West Side. She laughed at the depiction of the Irish hitman's family life as fond but overly formal, "Don't you think that a devout Irish Catholic father who's also a contract killer might drink a little more? I mean, something's got to give. Where's the volatility? The domestic violence? Look, the Italian mob took over Chicago because the Irish bootleggers would drink up their profits, then shoot each other. Hanks' character is such a good father from the git-go that his character just doesn't grow.

Rated R for violence and bad words.


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