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'Road To Perdition'

Hanks and Newman work the dark side in Depression-era Chicago

Friday, July 12, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Playing a bad guy for the first time, Denzel Washington won an Academy Award as the corrupt cop in "Training Day." Now, Tom Hanks, who already has two Oscars, comes over to the dark side in "Road to Perdition." He plays enforcer and hit man Michael Sullivan, who works for Depression-era Chicago gangster boss John Rooney, portrayed by Paul Newman.

 
 
'Road To Perdition'

RATING: R for violence and language.

PLAYERS: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law.

DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes.

WEB SITE: www.roadtoperdition.com

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

So can nice guy Hanks play an effective villain? Yes, but in this case the question is almost superfluous.

By casting Hollywood's best-liked actor in the role, the producers of "Road to Perdition" stack the deck in Sullivan's favor -- especially because, while he commits some grim deeds on camera, we are fully sympathetic to his actions because of the circumstances surrounding them.

An equally skilled but less popular actor would have made Sullivan a more ambiguous character in our eyes and perhaps given the movie the one extra level of depth that would make it as great as the DreamWorks hype machine would have you believe.

Nevertheless, "Road to Perdition" is quite good enough, a beautifully crafted and well-acted gangster movie built around interlocking father-son relationships involving Sullivan, Rooney and their offspring.

The rifts that develop are the stuff of tragedy, and while they hit us in the gut at times, director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty," but I won't hold that against him) maintains a certain emotional distance that keeps us at arm's length. Much of this necessarily occurs in the relationship between the two Michael Sullivans, father and son.

The year is 1931, but the Sullivan family lives well in a nice house in what looks like the suburbs. Young Michael (Tyler Hoechlin) has no idea what his father does for a living -- "putting food on your plate," retorts his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) when he asks one night at the dinner table.

He finds out soon enough, by hiding in his father's car before he goes out on a mission with Rooney's son, Connor (Daniel Craig), who is a loose cannon. Things go wrong and young Michael sees it all.

Connor, who is jealous of the older Michael's close relationship with John Rooney, takes matters into his own hands. The two Michaels end up on the run, trying to save their skin while trying to get back at Connor. But John will have none of it, even though he knows his son bears responsibility for unforgivable acts.

In the meantime, the two Michaels must depend on each other. The father must turn his son into his accomplice, yet his most fervent wish is that the boy take a different path in life than his own road to perdition. The movie, scripted by David Self from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, notes this contradiction but does not emphasize it until the very end.

One of the best scenes in the film occurs when the two Michaels have found temporary refuge on a farm downstate. The father is going through files that he hopes will give him leverage against the Rooneys and their protector, crime lord Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci). The son likens it to homework, and as they continue to talk, we realize just how little the older Sullivan knows about his boy -- how much he has had to shut him out of his life in order to protect him.

Hanks plays the older Sullivan as a terse and wary man, quiet of speech but quick of action. He does not -- can not -- open up to anyone, contributing to the film's emotional reserve. The good will that Hanks brings to any role makes him seem warmer and less remote. Newman is more expansive, often avuncular, but capable of flashing a steely edge at any time. Tucci is an interesting choice to play Nitti, a low-key and cultured alternative to the brash, uncouth stereotype created by Bruce Gordon on the TV series "The Untouchables." And young Hoechlin seems like a natural in his first major role.

But the most fascinating performance in the film comes from Jude Law as Maguire, a press photographer who specializes in, as he calls it, "shooting the dead." For the right price, you can specify just whom you want him to shoot. On the trail of the Sullivans, he looks like a cross between Malcolm McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange" and a demented Stan Laurel.

While Maguire recalls the film's comic-book origins, the cinematography by Conrad Hall and the production design by Dennis Gassner immerse us in the dark chill of the landscape that the characters inhabit, from the skyscrapers of Chicago to the lonely country highways.

"Road to Perdition" takes us on an impressive, if somewhat impassive, journey.

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