Road to Perdition (2002) Movie Review

Tom Hanks, he of the scratchy voice and fine comedic timing, playing a brooding hitman in 1931 Chicago? Impossible! But as it turns out, not so unthinkable at all. It’s easy to forget that Hanks has played dramatic roles before (“Philadelphia”) because most people (re: me) associate him with popular romantic comedies like “Big” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” Like Jim Carrey, no matter how many awards Hanks eventually wins for his dramatic works, he’ll never be able to escape the films that initially made him famous. A romantic comedy this ain’t.

“Road to Perdition” stars Hanks as Michael Sullivan, the ace enforcer for an Irish crime family led by John Rooney (Paul Newman). Sullivan is forced to flee his second family after his oldest son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), becomes an accidental witness to a mob execution that Sullivan is a part of. Despite Sullivan’s assurance that Michael won’t tell anyone, the impulsive Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) takes it upon himself to set up Sullivan and his family to be killed. Angry at the betrayal, Sullivan sets out to kill Connor, but that means taking on old man Rooney — a man who Sullivan sees as a surrogate for his own missing father — as well as the Chicago crime syndicate presently headed by Frank Nitti. And in 1930s Chicago, that’s a tall order!

“Road to Perdition” started life as a graphic novel (an elaborate form of the comic book), which I have never read, so I have no comparison to the movie version. But there must have been something special about the novel for so many talented people to attach themselves to the project. So why does “Road to Perdition” The Movie feel so…underwhelming?

Perhaps it’s because beyond the great performances by Hanks, Newman, and Daniel Craig (as the scheming, swarming, and untrustworthy Connor Rooney) the rest of the film fails to impress or generate much enthusiasm. That includes the drive of the movie, which follows Sullivan as he and his surviving son Michael Jr. goes about revenging their deceased family members.

Of particular note is a middle section where Sullivan and his son began robbing a series of banks in order to convince Nitti (a very bland Stanley Tucci) that it’s not in his interest to side with the Rooneys. In that long interlude, Mendes and writer David Self must have forgotten that Michaels Jr. and Sr. have just lost the other half of their family in a particularly vicious manner, that they are presently on the run from the mob, and that a dangerous killer named the Reporter is still on their tail. How else could you explain why Mendes would throw in a “comical” soundtrack along with some supposedly “comedic” moments that turns the Sullivans’ bloody (and doomed) quest for revenge into a series of airy moments?

A better (and probably more sensible) course of action might have been to execute the film as a brooding crime drama from start to finish, thus maintaining the grim and gritty aura from the film’s beginning. But alas, “Perdition” suffers from an uninteresting storyline that has been done before. The Japanese manga (comic book) series “Lone Wolf and Cub” already told the tale of a former Shogun assassin who must flee with his son after his employer, the Shogun, betrays him. There was even a series of movies adapting the comic book. (One such movie called “Shogun Assassin” appeared briefly in the States in the late “˜70s.)

The real (and for all intents and purposes, only) treat of “Perdition” is the incredible performances by the leads. Hanks is superb as the brooding hitman who still remembers that he’s just human underneath his steel exterior. But the best performance belongs to Paul Newman, who plays the conflicted John Rooney, the mob boss who knows he should side with Sullivan against his murderous and selfish son, but is simply unable to because of his blood ties to Connor. Rooney’s anguished soul is laid to bear and Newman’s grizzled and aged face is nothing short of perfection.

British Jude Law, on the other hand, seems too preoccupied with trying to maintain an American accent to pay attention to his role. You could see him struggling with his dialogue, which might explain why his assassin/reporter character is such a throwaway. Law is grossly out of place, and although his character is interesting in concept design (besides being a hired killer, the Reporter is also a credited crime photographer!), Law is not very convincing. Which means the Reporter’s long pursuit of Sullivan and Michael Jr. comes across as yet another uninteresting sidetrack from the movie’s main focus.

Newman and Hanks, who brings a wide range of complexity and internal angst to their respective roles, overpower the rest of the cast. Even the usually reliable Stanley Tucci is not very good as the mob enforcer Frank Nitti. Instead of looking like the assassin that he was in real life, Tucci plays (and the character is written) as being nothing more than some kind of bank manager. Mendes manages to coax some good scenes out of young Tyler Hoechlin (Michael Jr.) but the young man is not up to the task most of the times. (There is also a glorified cameo by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sullivan’s wife that is not worth mentioning.)

If not for the outstanding and burdened performances by Hanks and Newman, “Road to Perdition” is too uneven to be a good film. The 1930s landscape is nice to look at, but pretty background is a required trait for any Hollywood-backed movie worth its salt nowadays. Besides, the film’s 1930s backdrop could have been replaced by any number of eras, or countries for that matter, and the film wouldn’t miss a beat.

It should also be said that besides a couple of gunfights and a number of executions by gunfire, “Perdition” is not actually an action movie. It’s violent, but not in the John Woo sense of the word. Actually, “Perdition” is a pretty straightforward film. Gangster is betrayed, wants revenge, and gets revenge. Any questions?

Sam Mendes (director) / Max Allan Collins, Richard Piers Rayner (graphic novel), David Self (screenplay)
CAST: Tom Hanks …. Michael Sullivan
Tyler Hoechlin …. Michael Sullivan Jr.
Paul Newman …. John Rooney
Jude Law …. Maguire
Daniel Craig …. Connor Rooney
Stanley Tucci …. Frank Nitti

Buy Road to Perdition on DVD