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Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2002

The Depression never looked so good

Road to Perdition

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Sam Mendes
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: English
Starts Oct. 5

There is a sure-fire way to signal that your film is A Great And Significant Work and to rally all the critics (and Academy Award voters) around you. Well, actually there are several: the "famous actor playing mentally disabled character" usually works pretty well, as does the "politically correct issue" film.

News photo
Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in Sam Mendes' "Road to Perdition"

But the one we're discussing today, possibly the most effective of all, is this: Make your film look like an old movie. Not only does this strategy allow critics to spew about all the clever cinematic references they can spot (and that most viewers under 30 have never heard of), it also plays into their underlying prejudice that movies just aren't as good as they used to be.

I don't buy that proposition and would gladly round up a dozen films from the past decade to pit against any revered classic from the Golden Age. One of them would surely be director Sam Mendes' "American Beauty," a film that was as lyrical as it was funny, a merciless farce of suburban self-absorption and dissatisfaction that resolved into something far more tender and philosophical.

"American Beauty" was a surprise, a story that we thought we'd seen before ("Lolita") which played out in a very different way. Mendes' followup, however -- the Depression-era gangster tale "Road to Perdition" -- looks and feels very much like films we've seen before, and deliberately so. Eager to cement his rep after the multiple Oscar-winning "American Beauty," Mendes has played the "old movie look" card.

"Road to Perdition" takes place in Illinois, 1931, when Prohibition was the law of the land, and gangsters like Al Capone were making fortunes off the illegal traffic in booze. Mendes fills his film with fedoras, heavy overcoats and tommy guns, and limit its palette to almost to monochrome: gray and brown suits, pale skin and white snow, streets of brick and steel. Conrad L. Hall, the veteran cinematographer who won an Oscar for "American Beauty," shoots every scene with the exaggerated contrast and heavily manipulated use of shadow more common to black-and-white films. All of which evokes memories of flicks like "Little Caesar" or "Public Enemy" -- See? I fell for it. And any similarities to "Bonnie & Clyde" and "The Godfather," in theme as well as ambience, are surely not coincidental.

Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a dour hit man for local gang boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). Sullivan is also a family man, who makes sure to conceal from his two sons what he does for a living. His close, almost filial bond with Rooney earns him the resentment of Rooney's actual son, Connor (Daniel Craig), a hothead with a perpetual chip on his shoulder.

One day Sullivan's older son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), stows away in his dad's car to find out exactly what kind of "work" he does. Accompanying Sullivan is Connor, who turns a routine bit of strong-arm pressure into a bloody shootout. Michael Jr. sees it all, and when he's discovered by the older men, his father makes him swear to silence. Connor leaves it at that, but the look in his eye is not comforting.

One big stab-in-the-back later, Sullivan takes flight with Michael, hitting the road to Chicago, where he hopes to convince Capone's lieutenant Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to set things right. In the meantime, a slightly deranged crime photographer (Jude Law), who moonlights as an assassin and photographs his victims, is on Sullivan's trail and eager to whack him before he can strike back against the Rooneys.

Mendes, working from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, certainly has the fundamentals of a good gangster flick, not least of which are some gripping performances: Hanks shows us a new side as a heavy -- aloof and remote -- while Newman gives a truly great, conflicted performance, the steely paterfamilias who's disgusted by his son, but compelled to protect him nevertheless. Daniel Craig's Connor, though, pathetic and terrifying, is the film's most volatile element, and the one that really pulls you in.

The suspense is done well too, with enough twists and surprises to keep you engaged. That is, until the introduction of Law's character, who seems far too affected and geeky to mesh with the rest of the cast's more naturalistic approach. Just as the camcorder-wielding Ricky in "American Beauty" was that film's weakest link, Mendes' attempts to pry in a subtext on voyeurism and the detached mediation of the camera are about as subtle as a crowbar. He's the sort of character -- more artistic conceit than recognizable person -- that you'd never see in, say, "The Godfather," but is all too common with directors trying to be arty these days.

And, in the end, it's this ponderous air of artiness that drains all the life out of "Road to Perdition." (As if the title itself wasn't already a giveaway.) Every scene is so exquisitely composed, every theme mirrored in so many visual symbols (of water, glass and photos), every meaningful line surrounded by brackets of solemnity ("Sons are put on this Earth to trouble their fathers"), that there's never a moment that lets us forget that we're watching that Great And Significant Work.

This reaches its nadir at Sullivan's climactic moment of revenge, when he machineguns all his enemies . . . on a rain-swept street, lit just so, with the sound cut and the weepy score soaring as bodies sprawl in graceful slow-motion. This is art-directed and aestheticized to the point where the essential savagery of the action is drained from it completely. It's not only bloodless but passionless. (A useful comparison is the climax of "Apocalypse Now," just as composed, but with a brutal finality.)

Perhaps I complain too much, since sub-par Sam Mendes and Conrad Hall is still better than 95 percent of what's coming out of Hollywood. "Road to Perdition" is a beautiful film with some fine performances, but at times it just tries too hard, attempting to be operatic when a simple etude would do. Like cool, greatness can't be contrived, it just happens.

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