Road To Perdition (15)

Review by Jack Foley

AFTER unearthing the flip-side of the American dream and walking away with an Oscar for American Beauty, British director Sam Mendes now takes on the gangster genre… and emerges triumphantly.

Road To Perdition, his breathtaking follow-up, is a sweeping, awe-inspiring and totally captivating crime saga that embraces all of the big issues - father/son relationships, sin and redemption, honour and betrayal - in a fresh and exciting way, while also tipping its rain-soaked hat to the very best that Coppola, Leone and De Palma have offered.

Based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner and set in and around 1930s Chicago, the movie tackles the conflict between two fathers - Tom Hanks’s loyal hit man, Michael Sullivan, and Paul Newman’s respected Mob boss, John Rooney - as they bid to protect their sons from the evils of the life that they have chosen.

It is a dilemma made all the more difficult by the sons in question - one a wide-eyed 12-year-old boy (beautifully-played by newcomer Tyler Hoechlin) who witnesses a Mob killing after sneaking along for a ride with his father, the other a reckless trouble-maker (Daniel Craig), prone to violence, who craves the power his father is so reluctant to bestow upon him.

Craig, more than anyone, provides the catalyst for the journey the two fathers must make, when he attempts to cover up his latest killing by wiping out half of the Sullivan family (Michael Snr’s wife and youngest son) in a bid to remove any witnesses.

The slaying forces Newman to choose between the son he wishes he had (Hanks, now forced on the run and vowing revenge), and the one that he has (a cowardly hot-head ill-suited to the responsibility ahead of him); a decision that can only end in tragedy.

Mendes states: "That is the core of the story: two men protecting their children. In the end, what can be more important than that?"

Little wonder, then, that the film maintains such a vice-like grip on your emotions, as these two giants of the silver screen wrestle with their responsibilities as fathers, businessmen and friends.

Hanks, venturing into far darker territory than ever before, is simply superb as Michael Sullivan, a cold-hearted killer forced to turn protector to his son and do battle against the very people who took him in when young. It is a performance of restrained frustration and quiet despair, coupled with the type of calculated ruthlessness befitting a killer.

His scenes with Hoechlin are tremendously affecting, while his rapport with Newman is electric - whether it be playing a piano duet at the beginning of the movie, or being told that ‘this is the life we chose… and there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven’, towards the end of it.

Newman, meanwhile, mesmerises, without ever having to showboat. It is a performance which is every bit as effective as Brando’s turn in The Godfather, and which smacks of regret throughout. Expect him to feature prominently come Oscar time.

Mendes also infuses the film with a poetry reserved for the classics, treading a nice line between the characters and their actions and drawing on several film references for his set pieces (everything from Miller's Crossing to Once Upon A Time In America and so forth) - yet there are several moments of genius to savour, not least during the final 20 minutes.

The director is clearly a perfectionist and not a frame feels wasted, nor a supporting player overlooked - with Jude Law the pick of the bunch as a sinister photographer-turned-assassin.

Road To Perdition may be a euphemism for the journey to hell undertaken by Hanks throughout the movie, as well as the name of the town he wishes to take his son, but for film buffs everywhere, it is an unmissable ride through cinema heaven. In a word, it is stunning.

RELATED STORIES: Click here to see clips from the film or hear on-line interviews with its stars...
Click here for a feature on what attracted Tom Hanks to the project...
Click here to find out what the US critics thought...