Say it ain't so, Joe. Er, Tom. Say you're not a villain. I mean, not our Forrest Gump, not our castaway who was sleepless in Seattle, who was Big, who saved Private Ryan, for crying out loud.
Fortunately, even when Tom Hanks is playing a bad guy, he's a good guy. David Self's screenplay for 2002's "Road to Perdition" sees to that, a screenplay far less violent than the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner on which the script is based. Hanks is still the "Angel of Death," the number-one hit man for the Rooney gang, an affiliate of the Capone organization in 1931, but he's not quite so brutal in this latest translation. In fact, he's a straight-arrow family man, living in the suburbs with a beautiful wife and two young sons. He may be a cold-blooded murderer, but apparently it's only a job, nine-to-five.
It doesn't pay to analyze the story and characters too much or they begin sounding downright melodramatic. Chalk it up to the expertise of relative newcomer Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") directing with such a sure hand that everything comes out as well as it does. What could have been just another blustery gangster picture with maudlin overtones is turned into a lyrical vision of love and loyalty and bonding, a poetic coming-of-age for a father and son.
Admittedly, the story lays it on pretty thick at the beginning and only exaggerates it further as it goes along. Hanks plays Mike Sullivan, a fellow viewed almost as a son by big-time gangster John Rooney (Paul Newman), who long ago took him in, somewhat in the manner of Tom Hagen in "The Godfather." But Rooney's got another son, a real son, Connor (Daniel Craig), who's hotheaded, somewhat in the manner of Sonny in, uh, "The Godfather." Do you sense a pattern here? Anyway, Connor gets the plot's ball rolling after an introductory sequence that establishes Rooney's affection for Mike and Mike's affection for both his primary and secondary families.
Connor, you see, is not only hotheaded but crooked, vicious, and stupid, as well. And, unfortunately (for everyone but the audience or we wouldn't have a picture), Connor does something particularly stupid with Mike by his side, murdering a rival mobster and several of his henchmen with Mike's help while Mike's oldest son, Michael, Jr., age twelve, accidentally, surreptitiously, looks on. When Connor finds out that they've been seen by the boy, he thinks only to protect himself by attempting to wipe out the entire Sullivan family. Call it pent-up jealousy or whatever, he almost accomplishes the deed, killing Sullivan's wife and boy, Peter, but not getting the actual witness, young Michael, or Sullivan himself.
The rest of the film is an old-fashioned chase and revenge flick, complete with bank robberies, fast cars, and gun battles, with the added luxury of some serious themes and character relationships blossoming at almost every turn. Should old-man Rooney support his designated adopted son, Sullivan, so loyal and hardworking, or his own blood relative, Connor, a psychopathic nincompoop? Should Sullivan break his ties with young Michael, or might he find that being on the lam together will enable the two of them to bond like never before? Does "Perdition" refer only to the small town the Sullivans are heading toward or the road the older Sullivan has already taken, the road to hell from which he can never return, the road he has always wanted desperately to keep his sons from travelling?
Mendes guides his characters to Oscar-worthy performances. Hanks, the unlikeliest of heavies, is actually well cast as the aloof, reticent, soft-spoken, but cool and calculating hired gun, whom we are led to believe isn't so evil after all because he only kills bad guys. One of the great joys of the film is watching his character's relationship with his son unfold, a son he had not truly known until the advent of these tragic events. The veteran Newman, too, communicates an appropriate sense of anguish over his dilemma as a man facing the toughest choices of a long and tumultuous life. His is a complex and conflicted role, and Newman, as usual, is up to the challenge. Then there's Tyler Hoechlin as Michael, Jr., holding his own against the illustrious older actors; Jennifer Jason Leigh and Liam Aiken as Sullivan's doomed wife, Annie, and son, Peter; Stanley Tucci as Frank Nitti, Capone's right-hand man; and Jude Law as Maguire, the relentless killer sent out after Sullivan and his son.
Moreover, Mendes manages to make something eloquently imaginative out of an otherwise heavy-handed set of circumstances. Notice the director's use of film-noir contrasts in lightness and shadow and his expressive sense of dark imagery to convey the movie's dusky, foreboding tone; his feel for the grit and gloom of a Depression Era Midwest; his insistence on quick, sudden violence made all the more intense coming from the encircling quiet; his recognition of the inherent romanticism in desperate men and desperate situations; and his narrative economy in the application of cinematic montage. Finally, lest we forget, there's the remarkable cinematography of the late Conrad L. Hall, which may have had as much to do with the foregoing successes as Mendes' direction.
Even young Michael's voice-over, an extension of the device the director used in "American Beauty," proves effective: "When people ask me if he was a decent man, or if there was no good in him at all, I don't answer. I just tell them, he was my father."
Mendes and his associate filmmakers are able to transcend the story's source material and create something far more than the sum of its parts; namely, a gripping, moving, entertaining motion picture.
There's certainly nothing to fault about the video presentation, either; it's first-rate all the way. The screen measures an original 2.35:1 ratio, anamorphic, and it is clean and clear. The muted, Depression Era tones are well represented, the images are well delineated, and many of the scenes are so deeply imbued with rich colors they appear almost three-dimensional in their realism. Beautiful golden-brown, gray, and white hues predominate, with an abundance of dark areas that reveal good detail, as well. There are some minor halo issues on occasion but no moiré effects to speak of.
The audio reproduction is equally up to the task, especially in Dolby Digital 5.1 (Dolby Stereo Surround is also available). There's rain, of course, and plenty of it in the rear or side speakers, plus musical ambiance, machine guns rat-tat-tatting, bullets ricochetting, and the like. But there are small, subtle touches, too, like doors closing behind us and the whacking of branches by the Sullivan car as it speeds too near a tree. The dynamic range is wide, as well as the frequency response, with sparkling highs and room-rattling lows. In other words, nothing but superior audiovisual qualities complement a superior movie.
DreamWorks provide a healthy selection of extras on their DVD. The first is the mandatory audio commentary with the director, Sam Mendes. His comments are straightforward, to the point, entertaining in a purely informational sort of way. The next is a twenty-five-minute HBO documentary, "The Making of Road to Perdition," which includes the usual behind-the-scenes shots and interviews. After that are eleven deleted scenes that can be played with or without the director's commentary. This is one of the few instances where the deleted scenes are actually of interest, the Capone scene in particular. Then, there are some extensive production notes, cast and filmmaker information, and a widescreen photo gallery. Oddly, there is no trailer for the film. The bonus package concludes with twenty-four scene selections; English and French spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and, something unusual, verbal descriptions in English for the visually impaired.
I enjoyed "The Road to Perdition" immensely, but its goings-on are probably too much out there in pulp-fiction land to call it a truly great film. The plot is too contrived, the characters too sentimental, the performances too convenient, the ironies too easy for the movie to strike every viewer as high art.
Yet, as I've said, it all works surprisingly well for so simplistic a story, and it involves the audience in its action from beginning to end. I'd say we have Mendes and Hall, Hanks, Newman, and Hoechlin to credit largely for this. So, thanks, guys; good work!