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‘Road to Perdition,’ the best comic-book movie without capes, hits Blu-ray

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Ask most moviegoers to name a comic-book movie and they’ll say ‘Iron Man,’ ‘The Dark Knight’ or maybe one of the Spider-Man films, but the sector goes far beyond the superhero fare -- just consider the jarringly eclectic film festival you could organize with comics adaptations like ‘Persepolis,’ ‘Ghostworld,’ ‘Akira,’ ‘Sin City,’ ‘300,’ ‘History of Violence,’ ‘Men in Black,’ ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,’ ‘American Splendor’ and ‘30 Days of Night.’

The best of the no-cape comics adaptations? Here’s a vote for ‘Road to Perdition,’ the 2002 crime masterpiece that has just arrived on Blu-ray for the first time and looks fantastic in the format. The movie presents a grim tribal tale of fathers and sons in the Irish gangland of Depression-era Chicago and the cast is outstanding.

Two cinema titans, Paul Newman and Tom Hanks, are studies in restraint and emotional simmer and there is plenty of talent around them with Tyler Hoechlin, Daniel Craig, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law in a truly memorable turn as soicopathic hit man who sells photos of his own crime scenes, a brilliant mash-up of Frank Nitti and Weegee...

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The late Conrad L. Hall won a richly deserved Oscar as the film’s director of photography but the film was MIA in the best picture category which was a mystery to me at the time and, with the clarity of Blu-ray hindsight, seems like a travesty.

It was the final feature film appearance by Newman (he would, however, do the voice work in ‘Cars’ a few years later) and that makes it even more evocative to revisit. That goes beyond the audience; last week I visited the New Mexico set of ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ (yes, another non-cape comic-book adaption) and had a chance to sit down with Craig for a long chat.

As he rolled tobacco in the shade, the subject turned to ‘Perdition’ and he immediately mentioned Newman.

‘I’d like to see it again,’ Craig said. ‘That for me was an incredible experience, working with Newman and Connie Hall. It was quite emotional on set actually. Connie and he had worked together forever. They had been through a lot. Newman had one foot in that old movie star era and one foot in the sort of modern era. He straddled it. He was a pure movie star in every sense of the word but he was a great, great actor.’

Craig is working with Harrison Ford on ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ and he said the first day on the set reminded him of working with Newman.

‘There’s that thing -- what do you do if you walk into the room and a hero of yours is standing there and you have to work with them? With Newman, it was great to see he was going through all the angst and worries that an actor goes through. Was it going to be good? How is it going to work? He was what, 76, when he made it? Christ, if I can make it that far and still be as excited about working as he was -- I will be very happy. He made a lot of good choices in life.’

I mentioned that ‘Perdition’ was based on a comic book and Craig blinked before he spoke. ‘You can steal stories from anywhere -- steal without prejudice. That’s true that it was a comic book, I actually had forgotten that.’

It’s easy to forget. When the film was first released Dreamworks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox discouraged any prominent mention that the movie was an adaptation of a graphic novel. The decision was made that the comics heritage might run at odds with the eventual Oscar campaign.

Max Allan Collins, the great pulp-spirited author of the ‘Perdition’ graphic novel, says it’s amazing how the Hollywood view of the source material has changed in just eight years. ‘I certainly understood at the time but it is nice to see how the perception has changed and the fact that the book and I are prominent in the Blu-ray bonus features.’

Here’s a bit from that bonus material:

When ‘Perdition’ came out some critics found it too frosty or emotionally remote. Roger Ebert, for instance, wrote in his review: ‘After I saw ‘Road to Perdition,’ I knew I admired it, but I didn’t know if I liked it. I am still not sure. It is cold and holds us outside. Yes, there is the love of Hanks for his son, but how sadly he is forced to express it.’ It’s a valid point, to be sure, but for me watching the bottled emotions underscored the time and setting -- these were men who kept their feelings under lock and key and searched each other’s eyes for weakness. It was a cold world of hard choices but that’s precisely why the road to ‘Perdition’ is a journey worth taking again.

-- Geoff Boucher

PHOTOS: Scenes from ‘Road to Perdition’ (Francois Duhamel/DreamWorks)

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