Directed by Sam Mendes. USA. 2002.
Reviewed by Jen Johnston and Howard Schumann
I know what all of you are thinking. “Look at this movie,” you think. “Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, how can it possibly fail to be good? I will remember it, so that when I chip in to next year’s Oscar office pool, Jen will once again lose all of her money. As she does every year. Because she foolishly selects the movies she thought were good as possible contenders for the golden doorstop.” Next year, true to form, I can only imagine that I’ll be watching the Academy Awards (official motto: 'We get paid by the hour') and I’ll see a lot of statues going to this movie. And next year, true to form, I’ll be scratching my head in bewilderment and yelling at the screen that the wrong movie is taking everything home.
Road to Perdition is the story of Michael O’Sullivan, a devoted family man, and mafia assassin. Wearing the face of the father and husband at home, and the hit man at work begins to take it’s toll however when O’Sullivan’s son witnesses his Dad in action. After his wife and youngest boy are murdered, the 'Angel of Death' takes his only family on the run.
Tom Hanks (Apollo 13, You’ve Got Mail) plays the conflicted O’Sullivan. Here, though Hanks is interesting to watch, the script fails him. His role, rather than coming across as a distant Dad, is more of a non-entity, cold and detached from everyone around him. While the frigidity of his family relationships gives him some depth as a character, it does at times push O’Sullivan into a realm of unlikeability (i.e. when he first spots his son at a murder scene, he doesn’t attempt to comfort him, he simply yells at the poor boy). Hanks’ previous roles hamper him in this particular case as well, as he is adored as the sweetheart, and I found myself either missing any aura of menace from this man, or unconsciously choosing to overlook it. There were some nice moments of O’Sullivan showing pity for his victims, and deliciously awkward flashes of him attempting to reach out to his son, but ultimately it’s not enough to make Hanks’ character one to enjoy.
Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke, Nobody’s Fool) plays O’Sullivan’s employer; John Rooney. This character is one that had the potential to be interesting, but isn’t given nearly enough screen time. Like Hanks, Newman is a man who is hard to see as a ruthless villain (1. Because he is so amiable and 2. Because he has the most friendly, sparkling blue eyes in the whole wide world). His bigger, more genial roles (like Butch Cassidy) are infinitely better constructed, and will stick in my mind long after “Road to Perdition” has disappeared from my theatre. My big problem with Newman in this role have nothing to do with his performance, and much more to do with the fact that he is far too good for the part. His short splurts onscreen are so magnetic that I found myself disappointed every time he wandered out of viewing.
Jude Law (GATTACA, Love, Honour, and Obey) stars as the ghoulish photographer/homicidal maniac, Maguire. Here, out of any of the parts of this film, lies the one man who truly deserves to be noticed. Law’s Maguire is charismatic, and attractively devilish. He is also one of the most ridiculously lovely men working in Hollywood today. Despite the fact that the filmmakers saw fit to make him a balding man, with yellow teeth, and a paunch, he is still drop dead gorgeous. His mischievous eyes, and whiskey scratched voice make him incredibly hard to look away from. Law has all of the intensity of a young Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) and has really sunk his teeth into this part.
The sin of this movie is that if the script had been enveloped with heart, it would have had the potential to compete with The Untouchables as one of the best films of it’s genre. Instead though, I found myself in a similar frame of mind to that in which I found myself after watching A. I. : Artificial Intelligence. That being that the performances were good, the scenery was beautiful, but the tone was so cold that you really didn’t become attached to anyone in the film (The exception in both cases being Jude Law). Road to Perdition seems to be depending only on it’s pedigree (which is admittedly impressive) to grab the viewers attention. What director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) is overlooking is the fact that it takes heroes, and villains with heart, however blurry their ethics to make a good story. On the strength of getting to watch Jude Law at play, I will recommend a viewing at your local theatre’s cheap night, but not much other than that.
In the opening sequence of Road to Perdition by Sam Mendes, 12-year old Michael Sullivan, Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) talks about his father (Tom Hanks) who is a hit man for the mob. The older Sullivan works for aging crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), a formidable figure in mob circles who rules Chicago "like God rules the Earth". The film is about organized crime during the heyday of Al Capone but is also a touching coming-of-age story about an emotionally distant father and the son he must connect with in order to survive. Rooney, in a great performance by Paul Newman, helped raise Sullivan when he was orphaned and acts like a grandfather to his children. He is torn, however, between taking care of his business interests, protecting his own son Connor (Daniel Craig), and maintaining his close relationship with Sullivan. When these come into conflict, the results are lethal.
Young Michael yearns for a relationship with his dad who is aloof and determined not to have his son follow in his footsteps. Michael is curious about his father's job and one night sees his father participate in a gangland murder. When one murder leads to another, Sullivan is forced to use the youngster to help him exact revenge. Father and son set out on a cross-country odyssey robbing the banks where Capone's illegal money is deposited. To survive on the run, they must contend not only with Rooney, but his trigger-happy son Connor and Maguire (Jude Law), a creepy hired assassin who enjoys taking pictures of dead people. Michael is willing to help because he needs his father's approval and, in the 31-day adventure that follows, the two form an unbreakable bond.
Road to Perdition is restrained but never cold and both Hanks and Newman bring so much humanity to their roles that their characters have a rare depth. Backed by a lovely score by Thomas Newman, the photography of the late cinematographer Conrad Hall captures the mood of sombre intensity in its depiction of the rain-soaked Chicago streets and the loneliness of the mid-western landscape. Road to Perdition is not the Godfather Four but a unique character study that will stand the test of time.
Book Reviews | About Us