Friday, July 12, 2002
Every decade gives rise to a great mob movie.
The '70s provided the first two "Godfather" masterpieces. Sergio Leone's vast epic "Once Upon a Time in America" dominated the '80s, while the '90s offered Martin Scorsese's much imitated "Goodfellas."
Now the '00s can claim "Road to Perdition," an often bleak but commanding tale of duty and betrayal within an extended mob family of Irish-Americans.
At the film's beginning a boy's voice narrates, "There are many stories about Michael Sullivan. Some say he was a decent man. Some say there was no good in him at all. But I once spent six weeks with him in the winter of 1931. This is our story." The speaker is Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), a 12-year-old who idolizes his father (Tom Hanks), even if he doesn't quite know what the man does for a living.
The elder Sullivan is really the brutal enforcer of veteran kingpin John Rooney (Paul Newman). Young Michael figures this out when he witnesses his dad and Rooney's adult son Connor (Daniel Craig) gun down a business associate in a rain-soaked warehouse.
"Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers," John Rooney tells his trusted gunman, willing to assume the incident will be kept secret.
But soon Connor has targeted the Sullivans for his own reasons. As the violence escalates, the Rooneys send out their goons (with a terrifying Jude Law as point man) in pursuit of the father and son as they flee across the Midwest. Meanwhile Connor goes into the protection of Chicago's Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) in fear that Sullivan will seek revenge.
Like all three "Godfather" movies, "Perdition" begins at a family gathering, this time at the wake of a murdered colleague. Here Hanks and Newman immediately establish the layered complexity of their relationship. A scene where the two join together at a piano (recalling Hanks' thematically similar duet with Robert Loggia in "Big) helps illustrate that they behave more like father and son than gangster and henchman.
While Hanks plays a character much more internalized (virtually cold-blooded) than in previous screen appearances, he still generates a type of instant connection with the audience. It's among Hanks' least flashy characterizations, but one just as important to his overall pantheon of work. On the flip side, Newman gives his most animated and intense performance in a decade. The screen legend brings a wealth of experience to a seemingly familiar type of movie "villain."
As perfectly suited for the role as Newman proves himself, it is in the offbeat casting of the other crucial supporting part that the film draws much of its energy. The matinee-idol looks of Law ("A.I.") act as a facade for the true ugliness of his character Maguire, a hit man whose day job is as a press photographer. His specialty? Murder victims. His apartment displays these horrific photos the way a senior citizen would brandish pictures of grandchildren. And as his unforgettable entrance proves, Maguire isn't adverse to helping a subject pose just so he can get the right shot ï¿½ so to speak.
British director Sam Mendes swept through the Oscars in 1999 with "American Beauty," and "Perdition" further emphasizes that his memorable debut was no fluke. The former stage director balances visceral action with emotional resonance, never drifting too far away from the thread of what is essentially a very simple storyline. ("Thirteen Day" screenwriter David Self adapts the work from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins.)
Mendes reunites with cinematographer Conrad L. Hall to craft a meticulous look for the project. Hall uses light and dark the way Van Gogh employed colors. This is especially apparent in a nighttime chat between Michael Jr. and his younger brother (Liam Aiken) where a flashlight is used to punctuate their conversation. Other standouts include the variety of aesthetic ways Hall frames the many death scenes ï¿½ his creative fascination with such fatalities often rivals that of Maguire's.
Interestingly, this marks the fourth collaboration that the 76-year-old Hall has enjoyed with the 77-year-old Newman. Others include "Cool Hand Luke" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Expect Newman to receive his ninth acting nomination and Hall to receive his tenth cinematography nod at next year's Academy Awards.
The title "Road to Perdition" yields a double meaning ï¿½ as a synonym for damnation and a literal town that the Sullivans hope to escape to ï¿½ and it offers a fitting analogy for the duality of the film itself. On the surface the movie has a routine, linear plot: an adult and child on the lam being pursued by mob killers. Yet there's a much more profound aspect at work here, the result of actors and filmmakers that carry with them an elite degree of depth.