In "Road to Perdition," Tom Hanks' stoic all-American face is surrounded by shadowy visions of the Depression-era Midwest -- a film noir dream about a father and son fleeing from the mob. And though the effect may sound precious, the results are often spectacular.
"Road" is a rare recent example of a big-budget Hollywood studio movie made with self-conscious artistry and ambition, with Hanks, Hollywood's supreme contemporary nice guy, as the centerpiece. It's a surprising role for him, but he makes it work. Following in the line of his great co-star Paul Newman -- the generous outlaw of "Cool Hand Luke" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" -- Hanks plays a classic good-bad man: Michael Sullivan, an Angel of Death on a mission of hellfire.
Playing an ex-mob assassin fleeing through a landscape of underworld peril with his 12-year-old boy (Tyler Hoechlin) at his side, Hanks gives a very affecting performance in this impressive, classy film, a gangster family saga based on Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner's graphic 1998 novel. Though inspired by a comic book, it's a movie that evokes the worlds of both "The Godfather" and "Miller's Crossing," but doesn't suffer by comparison with either. Director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") takes Collins' gutsy and often passionate story and gives this movie adaptation an impeccably controlled and compelling surface, each piece rolling neatly into the next, each performance building steadily toward a powerful climax, each image composed as carefully as a cityscape by Edward Hopper or a countryscape by Ansel Adams.
In the midst of the past world that Mendes, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall and their company create -- set in Chicago and the Midwest of 1930 -- Hanks portrays a killer with a conscience, forced into a terrible vendetta: a war with both the mob that employs him and Al Capone's Chicago Outfit. Hanks' Michael is a decorated WWI hero-vet who sees his wife, Annie, and youngest son, Peter (a sadly underused Jennifer Jason Leigh and Liam Aiken), slaughtered by a mob associate (Daniel Craig as psychopathic Connor Rooney), and hits the road with his older son, Michael Jr. (Hoechlin). In the process, the elder Michael becomes a bank robber, a killer and a kind of masterless samurai.
Michael, the good family man, tries to save himself and his son from another devoted dad: his good-natured patriarch, mob chief John Rooney (Newman) -- who is Connor's father. Rooney, though he prefers Michael, his right hand gun, feels he must protect his own son -- and the movie becomes a rumination on those two kinds of fatherhood: Michael's noble self-sacrifice, which is ultimately misunderstood by the world, and Rooney's partisanship, which contains a remnant of fatherly feeling, but is also fatally tainted by the corruption and amorality of the world they all inhabit.
Collins' book was imbued with this paternal-filial sentiment -- and also with a sense of estrangement from the world at large. Mendes' movie only increases this. After the massacre, most of his old world turns against Michael and his son, and hot on their trail is another master assassin, Jude Law as the creepy, thin-haired Maguire, a crime photographer who contract-kills for the mob on the side.
The movie, narrated by the adult Michael Jr. in the measured style of a man in a confessional, is as moody and vivid as the novel, a film noir in comic book format. But it isn't as exciting. The producers and Mendes have deliberately sacrificed a lot of Collins' and Rayner's raw excess --scenes like the bloodier shootouts and the riverboat fire, stuff you would think is a natural for the movies -- and they've added a wake scene that suggests "The Godfather." Collins, who writes the Nathan Heller True Crime detective novels and scripted the "Dick Tracy" comic strip for many years, likes to wallow in the power of pulp, but the moviemakers are more discreet about their roots. Perhaps the film "Perdition" is a little too classy, too high-pedigree; it could use more thrills and violence. Still, there's a trade-off: the moviemakers have enhanced and enlarged some of the book's other best qualities, creating deeper characters and a richer social backdrop, shrouding the tale with an aura of doom.
This film really puts you in the past (one digitized shot of La Salle Street with period cars and costumes has a shivery accuracy) and Hanks firmly holds us in the center. He gives Michael a quality somewhere between the younger Burt Lancaster and the older Al Pacino: a sense of honor shining through the mean streets of an evil world, of a perfect soldier cast into darkness, a perfect father killing another man's son to save his own.
Hanks has become one of our most reliable superstar actors: almost always picking good projects and giving them his best. His Michael radiates exactly those qualities we expect-earthiness and candor-while avoiding the easy romanticism that might have dulled the part. But in a superb cast, highlighted also by Craig's spoiled brat killer Connor, Tucci's businesslike Nitti and Law's wondrously ratty and sinister Maguire, the most revelatory performance may be Paul Newman's.
Newman, the one-time golden boy has had a run of ill movie luck recently. His last prize role was in 1994's "Nobody's Fool," and since then, the decent "Twilight" was ignored and both "Message in a Bottle" and "Where the Money Is" were dishearteningly bad, even if Newman wasn't. But Boss Rooney, father and lovable monster, connects with Newman's best roles of the past: not just the good bad guys, the sexy cads like "Hud," or the charming grifter of "The Sting," but even with the flawed heroes of "The Hustler," "The Color of Money" and "The Verdict." Rooney is a part that lets Newman distill again on screen all the qualities that made him a great movie star and actor: his comic brashness, his sensual magnetism, his lively intelligence and what Pauline Kael once dotingly described as his "traditional heroic frankness and sweetness" -- a natural nobility that glows against the sometimes ambiguous or blood-stained worlds around him. Newman's acting in "The Road to Perdition" is as good and moving as it's ever been -- which is saying a lot.
That is one key theme of "Road to Perdition," of course: natural nobility in a corrupt world. Hanks' Michael embodies it, but Newman's Rooney has it as well. And Rooney's fate shows how money and power might have ensnared Michael, if he loved them as much as family -- just as it shows how Rooney may relish the very rot and bloodshed that buoyed him to success.
So, in the end, we can forgive "Perdition" its artistic pretensions and its too-eager willingness to hide its pulp roots.
It's a genteel film with a gun in its pocket, but it's also a film with a universal chord of feeling that keeps welling up from the dark surfaces and violent byways of the plot -- and a final confession that both warms the heart and chills the blood.
3 1/2 stars
"Road to Perdition"
Directed by Sam Mendes; written by David Self, based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins (story and text) & Richard Piers Rayner; photographed by Conrad L. Hall; edited by Jill Bilcock; production designed by Dennis Gassner; music by Thomas Newman; produced by Richard Zanuck, Dean Zanuck, Mendes. A Dreamworks Pictures, 20th Century Fox presentation of a Zanuck Company production; opens Friday, July 12. Running time: 1:56 MPAA rating: R (language, violence).
Michael Sullivan--Tom Hanks
John Rooney--Paul Newman
Annie Sullivan--Jennifer Jason Leigh
Connor Rooney--Daniel Craig
Frank Nitti--Stanley Tucci
Michael Sullivan, Jr.--Tyler Hoechlin Alexander Rance--Dylan Baker
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times