Pop Gun

Sentimentality, dreary execution drain the life out of `Road to Perdition,' a tale of fathers, sons and the mob.

July 12, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Road to Perdition is an arty gangster film that wants to earn medals for having a conscience. Since it's the first film from director Sam Mendes since that grade-inflated award-winner American Beauty, it probably will.

Working from an exciting comic-book novel that boasts a distinctive brutal melancholy, Mendes applies an aesthetic and sentimental glaze to the story of an Irish-American hit man (Tom Hanks) who also tries to be a family man. On screen, Road to Perdition becomes a lace-curtain shoot-'em-up about fathers and sons. The graphic novel is more kinetic and more powerful than the motion picture.

David Self's script is drearily predictable on the subject of paternal ties. It's more like a baseball movie than a mobster flick - as Sullivan's boss says, "It's a natural law: Sons are put on this Earth to trouble their fathers." Hanks' stalwart character, Michael Sullivan, is the surrogate son and main lieutenant of wily gangland chieftain John Rooney (Paul Newman). Rooney's real son, Connor (Daniel Craig), is a volatile ne'er-do-well jealous of their attachment.

In the picture - unlike the hard-eyed graphic novel - the senior Rooney is a paragon of underworld virtues, except for his determination to protect his son no matter how bloody his misdeeds. Newman makes Rooney a grizzled champ with an Achilles' heart. You wish he were the movie's hero instead of Hanks' willfully taciturn Sullivan. Here Hanks is a controlling performer playing a controlled character. It gets boring watching him mete out sweat beads, one by one.

This film needs all the suspense it can muster. Without giving anything away, let's say that Connor Rooney commits atrocities that break the bond between his father and Sullivan and cause the hit man to declare war on the whole Rooney mob, and even their partners in Chicago: the Capone machine.

His oldest son, Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), becomes his only companion, and, in time, his getaway driver. In the course of Sullivan's vendetta, the film lays out the conundrums of parental legacies and family obligations without dissecting or exploring them - as if Mendes and Self thought that simply plunking down domestic issues in a mob epic would raise the film to Godfather level.

As young Hoechlin frames the tale with portentous scraps of narration - and Mendes frames the action from Junior's restricted point of view - the movie pre-digests thin material twice, then tries to make an action painting from the cud.

Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall beautifully calibrates the colors and lighting; he appears to have kept his wits sharp by seeing how many scenes he could compose with headlights, candles or isolated overhead lamps. Doubtless someone will write a thesis on how these patterns illuminate a world of ethical murkiness, but they're best savored for their virtuosity alone.

Like A.I., this movie receives an adrenaline rush with the appearance of Jude Law. Here he's an eccentric assassin named Harlen Maguire who takes WeeGee-like photos of corpses - often his own victims - as a sideline. The concept of a pop artist of death also dealing death might seem to be impossibly fancy. Yet Law pulls it off with the grace and avidity of a feral cat. His declaration that looking at a corpse makes him feel alive invokes in any sensitive viewer a shiver of belief.

In the best moments in the movie, Maguire tracks Sullivan to a diner, then blows his opportunity to kill him - Maguire's enthusiasm tips off his prey. In scenes like that, Law simultaneously plays dumb and smart. Even in a too-big bowler hat clamped over thinning hair, he's magnetic. If Hanks conveyed the sort of adoration for his son that Law does for his dirty work, this would be a far more potent picture.

The filmmakers are betting that their aura of sensitivity will bring continuous tension to the prospect of Junior becoming a killer like his dad. But they're so damnably respectable they might as well be adorning a needlepoint sampler with sayings like "Crime does not pay."

Road to Perdition is the opposite of edge-of-the-seat entertainment. Studied and somber, this movie invites you to sit back and admire the finish of its cinematography, the ambivalence of its moral point of view, the polished restraint of most of its performances. (Stanley Tucci must be the most cerebral Frank Nitti ever committed to celluloid.)

Let Academy members sit back and admire all this gutter elegance; less pretentious movie-lovers may recline so far they'll fall asleep.

Road to Perdition

Starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law

Directed by Sam Mendes

Rated R

Running time 119 minutes

Released by DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox

SUN SCORE * *

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