Rated R - Running Time: 1:59 - Released 7/12/02

Road To Perdition is only the second movie by director Sam Mendes, who broke into the industry with his Oscar-winning 1999 film American Beauty. Unfortunately, after you win Best Picture and Best Director (among others) for your first film, there's nowhere to go but down. While this movie has good acting and a good script, Mendes's directing seems a little self-indulgent, calling more attention to himself (i.e., camera angles, not-so-subtle subtleties) rather than to the actors and the story. There is a sophomoric quality to this film; although it shows a technical adroitness, it somehow seems overly simplistic—childish, if you will, in its execution, as if Mendes is constantly saying, look at me, I can make a violent mobster movie just as good as the big boys.

That said, it is by no means a bad movie. With actors like Tom Hanks, Jude Law, and Paul Newman, it would be difficult to go wrong. The story, written as a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, and adapted into the screenplay by David Self (who also penned the excellent Thirteen Days), the story takes place in 1931, at the height of prohibition, the Depression, and, if you'll pardon the pun, mob rule. It is told by a young boy named Michael Sullivan Jr. (15-year-old Tyler Hoechlin), whose father, Mike (Hanks), affectionately nicknamed the "Angel of Death," is one of the most feared and effective hit men in the crime organization run by the wealthy and elderly John Rooney (Newman). Although Mike is not John's son (he was taken in by the old man after losing his parents), he is treated as one; in fact, he is better loved than John's real son, the spoiled and ineffective Connor (Daniel Craig), whose hot-headed, tough-guy behavior is tolerated by everyone only because he's the offspring of their respected leader.

After a short prologue in which we learn that "business is business" (i.e., even the lives of well-trained enforcers are not secure if they show signs of disloyalty), the pivotal scene takes place. Michael witnesses a hit by his father and his "Uncle Connor," and his newfound knowledge of his father's grisly occupation instantly puts his entire family in danger. After some murders of family members and a near-miss intended as a hit for Mike himself, the father and son are on the run from the very organization he'd spent his adult life serving. Family ties being what they are, an outsider must be hired to hunt him down. Harlen 'The Reporter' Maguire (Law) is a hitman whose style is as twisted as it is unique: he not only kills his victims, he takes pictures while they are dying. In order to protect his and Michael's life from Maguire, Mike must think of a way to outsmart his boss and mentor without corrupting his own boy.

This film shows all the signs of a serious, thoughtful motion picture, well-produced by someone who knows what he's doing. Good performances abound, not only by Hanks, Hoechlin, Newman, and Law, but by Craig, whose characterization of Connor is both contemptible and pitiable, and Stanley Tucci, who plays Al Capone's man, Frank Nitti, in Chicago. The problem is, it shows those signs too clearly. Director Mendes's choices are mostly either derivative of greater movies or so well-choreographed as to become unbelievable. Violence is to be expected in a film like this, but it shouldn't force the story and character relationships to take a back seat. Hanks (whose cheeks are inexplicably packed full of padding like Brando's in The Godfather) is one of the ablest actors working today, and this role is so unlike anything he's played before, it should be a great opportunity for him to show us yet another extension of his range—but he seems more like a cunningly used tool than a character. And while this intense family story should be the most resonant thing about the picture, it is somehow less prominent than the lovingly shot mob hit scenes. There is no question that Mendes has genius in him, but he must not let it become the focal point of his work. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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