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The Road to Perdition

Starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law
Screenplay by David Self; based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner
Directed by Sam Mendes

IN SHORT: Great Newman. Great Hanks. Great cinematography. Great God what a disappointment. [Rated R for violence and language. 117 minutes]

We mean it about the pictures. Props to two-time Academy Award winner Conrad L. Hall (for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and American Beauty) for his work here. We mean it about the performances by Hanks and Newman and, later, Jude Law. We mean it when we write that we got the point of the father son relationship that runs most of this flick and still walked out of the theater without feeling the emotional satisfaction that should come along for the ride. We were not alone.

Long time readers already know that Cranky knows 'toons and comics. That means, by extension, that Cranky knows who The Road To Perdition's co-creator, original writer Max Allan Collins is. For those of you who don't, Collins knows a bit about writing about crime and mobsters. He helmed the Dick Tracy comic strip for 16 years; co-created the P.I. "Ms Tree" with Terry Beatty and the equally deft detective "Mike Danger" with father of all P.I. writers Mickey Spillane for the comics bearing their character names; and has put pen to paper for heavyweight novelizations of minor movies like Maverick, Saving Private Ryan, The Fugitive and its follow-up U.S. Marshals. Gee, with credits like that who the hell would want such an obvious incompetent to adapt his own work to the big screen? Instead, the people controlling the dollars hired David Self, a writer who split the baby with his last two screenplays -- 13 Days (which was great) and The Haunting (which was about as dreadful-awful-horrible as you can get).

We give you all that background because we're a long time supporter of what is called "creator's rights," and can't get word one as to why Collins shuffled to the side of this project. Perhaps the original brain behind the story could have produced a script whose story plays less hollow than the one we watched. Here, a pair of A-list actors almost single handedly rescue a story whose raison d'être is to compare and contrast two father-son relationships and whose execution only develops one of that pair. As great as Tom Hanks' work with newcomer Tyler Hoechlin is, and it is great make no doubt about it, you're all paying money to see Hanks and Newman share the screen. From their first appearance together, there's little to demonstrate the father-son bond that we are told is the core of their relationship, even though that relationship is always referred to as Sullivan's "job." We may suppose that hard core mobsters get to their positions of power by locking all their emotions far, far away. If so, we're doing the work that the writer should have done. Without that emotional background, you've only gotten half of what has all the feel of a classic motion picture.

It's probably because we were expecting a mobster movie, pre-advertised in the manner of the all-time numero uno, The Godfather. Even though the adult characters are mobsters, only some less bad than the others, The Road To Perdition isn't a mobster movie. Kidlet Michael Sullivan Jr. (Hoechlin) makes that point at both the beginning and conclusion of the picture in the kind of narrative style that is quickly forgotten at the start and lightweight as the capper to a two hour long film. This is a story of how much a son can learn about life from his dad, especially when dad's life is always on the verge of being snuffed out by a gangster's bullet.

In the Winter of 1931, with the iron grip of the Great Depression throttling the economy of the United States, Michael Sullivan (Hanks), wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and sons Michael Jr. (Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken) give thanks to the great Mr. John Rooney (Paul Newman) for the food on the table and the job which Sullivan is lucky to have. It doesn't hurt that gangster Rooney is surrogate father to Sullivan but it may when all is said and done. Sullivan is the Number One enforcer for Rooney, a gig successfully hidden from his inquisitive kids. One eve in the middle of a nasty winter, eldest son Junior hides underneath the back seat of the family Ford -- built for bootlegging -- and follows dad and uncle Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig), Mr. John Rooney's biological son, to work. The adults are supposed to have a friendly chat with a local bootlegger but Connor gets a little heavy handed with the elbow grease and and splatters said bootlegger all over warehouse floor. Junior shouldn't have been there to see that. Junior gets to stay alive because his dad and grand dad run the big show. Sullivan Senior believes that, too. Sullivan Senior is wrong.

"Protection," we are fond of pointing out, is not all that different from "Best Wishes". They're just a pair of words -- we, like Sullivan, aren't good at math, neither <g>. We are knowledgeable in the format of the genre which means we know all about baths of blood. Newman's character reemphasizes that point late in the game, just in case the gentle father son story that is playing out has lulled you into a false sense of security. We'll avoid disgorging the plot points of the first two Acts, even though y'all can probably guess most of it, and emphasize that most of the story that takes place on screen is a bonding experience for the two Michaels that takes place during a road trip from their home to Chicago, where gangster Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) rules.

The "road to perdition" is exactly that ... a highway the pair travel towards destination Perdition, Indiana, where an aunt lives and protection theoretically awaits. Hot on their tail is famed crime photog Holly Maguire (Jude Law), the always first on the scene newspaperman whose photos of the death scenes of mobsters big and small make all the best papers. There's a reason that Maguire is always first on the scene, which is also the reason why he's so good at what he does.

The only place to point the finger is at producer/director Sam Mendes, who got all of us reg'lar folk into arthouse seats for the brilliant American Beauty and who now puts superstars in to title roles for an ultimate arthouse flick. Sorry folks, that's what The Road To Perdition is, with all that that implies. Mendes gets great performances from his stars and yet has lost sight of the overall purpose of storytelling, that is to subtly grab the audience by the throat and then throttle us into submission. The sign of great acting is that we can know it's great work without making us feel that we're watching great actors at work. That is the case here. The sign of great story telling is that we walk out of the theater emotionally moved in some way. But that didn't happen here.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Road to Perdition, he would have paid . . .


We actually got the joke as Tom Hanks makes the rounds of the late night talk shows, jesting about the "beautiful colors" of Hall's palette. There are no colors in this film. Everything is gray and overcast, shot indoors in muted tones. Even as all the parts of the story are resolved and the sun literally begins to shine, the story remains firmly locked in shades of gray Our audience was locked, twitching in their seats, waiting for the emotional explosion that never happens. That may be appropriate for men whose occupation forces them to repress emotion to the extreme, but it isn't what makes a great crime drama. This ain't The Godfather. It's absolute arthouse.

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The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.