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Road to Perdition

Can nice guy Tom Hanks play a vengeful, murderous mobster in Road to Perdition?

Road to Perdition
By Jeff Koyen Add to favorites email print this article Share on FaceBoook

Road to Perdition
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by David Self based on the graphic novel of the same name
Starring Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman

When I see Tom Hanks’ basketball head, I imagine cutting it open to reveal a cross-section of flesh and bone that resembles the inside of a tree. I imagine 46 growth rings, some thick, some thin, depending on how much he gorged himself that year. The layer when he filmed Castaway, for instance, is wispy and thin – all that dieting for the role. (Though I’m not entirely convinced that his much-ballyhooed weight loss wasn’t digital trickery, so I’d examine that year very closely.) The outermost rings are as wide as your pinkie and slick with grease.

Hanks is getting fat, more figuratively than literally, but still – fat. Lazy. His performance as hit man Mike Sullivan in Road to Perdition is not a drastic departure for the Second Coming of Jimmy Stewart; it’s actually a predictable progression. So what if he kills men in cold blood? This is a “dark role” in the same way Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon was perfect for publicists and Premiere blurbs, yet challenged neither the actor nor the audience. Hanks in a period piece with a machine gun does not a “dark role” make.

Sam Mendes became a household name after directing the Academy Award-winning American Beauty, a movie best viewed as a self-conscious caricaturization of suburban life. It’s a bit of a comic book in its intentional superficiality. This follow-up is overtly and more acceptably comic-bookish; it’s based on the 1998 graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner.

1931. Prohibition. Tommy guns and model-Ts. Sharp suits and lots of dramatic shadows. More Irishman than Chateau on a Friday night. Mike Sullivan is the classic orphan character, a kept man of sorts. Years earlier, he was taken in by mobster John Rooney (Paul Newman), and given a life and livelihood. In return, he acts as Rooney’s heavy. Sullivan collects on debts, enforces punishment ... that sort of thing. Rooney’s biological son, Connor (Daniel Craig), is the classic fuck-up. He’s short-sighted, hot-headed and forever standing in the shadow of his informally adopted step-brother.

After Sullivan’s elder son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), witnesses a murder, Sullivan’s wife and other son are killed by the younger Rooney. Father and remaining son then go on the run together. Attempts to reconcile with the elder Rooney fail, due to Sullivan’s refusal to accept the murders without exacting revenge. For six weeks, they crisscross Illinois, engage in some interesting bank robberies and, well, get to know each other.

Mendes remembers the intimidating power of his father. Dad was a large creature, a mysterious beast who left in the morning and came home at night, demanded a yes-sir brand of politeness and showed little or no emotion in front of the children. Dad’s personal items – even the most mundane pocket detritus, such as keys or a billfold – were mysterious and charged with threat. Road to Perdition captures that feeling, uses it as the springboard and carries it through what’s ultimately a decent father-son/buddy/gangster/road movie.

Decent until the very last minute, that is. In the last moment before the credits roll, Mendes almost ruins everything. Everything has just wrapped up in good fashion, just as you’d expect – no loose ends, no major surprises, no terrible regrets. But then the sophomore director hands the mic to young Michael Sullivan. In a mawkish closing voice-over (that bookends his opening mawkish voiceover), Michael Jr. proceeds to beat the audience over the head with an explanation of the moral core.

It’s enough to make you stand up and scream at the screen, “Yeah, we get it. Mike Sullivan didn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps. Yeah, we get it. Mike Sullivan was a good but conflicted man. Yeah, thanks, got it. Right. Now, please let the credits roll.”

But what else is to be expected from a Tom Hanks movie? If, 20 years ago, Ridley Scott couldn’t win his fight to keep the voiceover out of Bladerunner, what chance does the Spielberg-bound Mendes have? Let it slide. Better yet, leave the theater as soon as you sense that the movie is over, which is actually two minutes before the last scene.

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