Road to Perdition

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ROAD TO PERDITION  presents bumps and potholes that have its story vehicle wobble and veer on its erstwhile stately course through the gangster-ridden Illinois winter of 1931. Looking beautiful, like the expensive suits sported by its hoodlum elite, but beyond the occasional noise of their gunshot communication method, it ultimately rings as hollow as their characters. A high-class production crew and top-flight cast meet graphic novel material and the result is a handsome, measured and respectable but downbeat, foregone and anti-climactic draw.

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‘Michael Sullivan’ (Tom Hanks) lives two lives in Rock Island, Illinois. One is as devoted husband and father of two young sons. The other is as Tommy-gun-wielding enforcer for Irish mob boss ‘John Rooney’ (Paul Newman), in cahoots with the Capone organization running Chicago. Sullivan is like an adopted son to Rooney, whose blood son ‘Connor’ (Daniel Craig) goes off-script with the resultant murders of Sullivan’s wife and one son. Michael and ‘Michael Jr.’ (Tyler Hoechlin, 14) go on the lamb to settle scores, while being pursued by weird assassin ‘Harlen Maguire’ (Jude Law). The road is strewn with corpses.

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After his big success with American Beauty, this elegiac period piece/crime saga/father & son bond’er was the next effort from director Sam Mendes. David Self adapted the script from a 304-page 1998 graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins, with art by Richard Piers Rayner.  Mendes keeps it at a somber and deliberate pace (apart from a lighter-segment that doesn’t fit well) and it is photographed by Conrad Hall both to emulate the look and mood of Edward Hopper paintings and also to steep the story in a cold patina, of winter weather with its rain, snow, fog, mud.  Results pleased many critics, who praised the acting (which is fine) and overall production design (ditto), but irked nearly as many others, who felt it too self-consciously heavy (yep), going for obvious Oscar-bait (duh). This time, both sides are on target.

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You’re not going to get bad work from the likes of Hanks, Newman and the rest, but the hoped-for emotional impact is drained by the clinically detached direction, morally compromised characters and funereal pace. Hanks and young Hoechlin (a good job, pulling his own weight with some of the industry big guns) are handicapped by the script giving their already thin characters next-to-no-time to digest an enormous personal loss before shifting into flight and fight mode; then their later bank-robbing spree is played for humor, totally out of sync with everything else before or after. Suspense evaporates as it gets further along. Newman, a hearty 77, is excellent as ever, and Craig and Law each get juicy bad guy parts. Jennifer Jason Leigh has so little screen time she might as well not be there and Stanley Tucci is miscast as Capone’s #2 associate Frank Nitti. Along with the cinematography, a good deal of help comes from Thomas Newman’s lovely score.road-to-perdition-2002-photographer-killer-jude-law

It isn’t the dramatic knockout intended, but also not the dreary dirge many critics sneered at—seeming to have some personal animus toward the director. A mixed bag.

$80,000,000 went into it, and a positive public turnout yielded a worldwide gross of $181,000,000, 24th best among the offerings from 2002. Hall’s painstaking camera efforts earned him a posthumous Oscar, and nominations went to Newman as Supporting Actor (the last of his career’s ten well-deserved noms, his first in the supporting rank), the Production Design, Score (Thomas Newman’s 5th of 14, so far), Film Editing and Sound Mixing.

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117 minutes, with Liam Aiken, Dylan Baker (who prissily demands a boiled but runny egg, as good as sealing his fate), Ciarán Hinds and Kevin Chamberlin—as a speakeasy bouncer, he gets the best line, “Sometimes, I despair of the species, y’know?”

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