Road To Perdition

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Road To Perdition

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An evergreen need for vice allows criminal enterprises to sprout wherever civilization spreads, but it takes discipline and order for such enterprises to thrive. In The Road To Perdition, feared mobster Tom Hanks wears an expression that suggests he abandoned his capacity for pleasure years ago. A father to two sons and the keeper of a large but modest house, he speaks as little as possible—his voice reveals him as among the first generation to lose its Irish brogue. He's a working-stiff enforcer, serving at the pleasure of Paul Newman, the unchallenged overlord of a remote Illinois kingdom, itself an unofficial outpost of the empire built by Al Capone. The film opens in the winter of 1931, when internal dissent has begun to stir, the Depression continues to rage, and Capone sits in jail. Though never directly mentioned, that last item seems to be on everyone's mind, as a reminder of how quickly autumn can arrive for a patriarch and one era can turn into another. For the affable, powerful Newman, aging would be reminder enough, and the process is made no easier by an heir apparent (Daniel Craig) unlikely to carry on the family tradition with honor. Hanks, on the other hand, wants a more respectable life for his children, and he keeps them at a distance from his job. Their two approaches to parenting meet an unexpected juncture one night when Hanks' older son, 12-year-old Tyler Hoechlin, witnesses a briefing with an insubordinate business associate that Craig brings to a bloody end. Fearing the worst from the young witness, Craig makes a startling choice that sends Hanks and Hoechlin on the road to revenge. Virtually nothing of what follows comes as a surprise—up through a finale that may as well announce itself with the credits, à la director Sam Mendes' last film, American Beauty—but that's not really the point. Adapting Max Allan Collins' unapologetically pulpy Lone Wolf And Cub-inspired 1998 graphic novel, Mendes' second effort plays like a familiar song transposed to a minor key, a gangland fable soaked in portent and fatalism until its familiarity ceases to be an issue. The properties around the story, the characters and the style, are what matter and what make the film so engrossing and ultimately moving. As Hanks gathers his resources, circumstances force him to bring Hoechlin into the world he'd worked to hide. His heartbreaking justification of his parental distance is as much the climax of the film as the shootouts that slow-boil throughout. Meanwhile, from a distance, another kind of family drama plays out in the strained father-and-son-like relationship between Hanks and Newman. In the plot's solid through-line, Mendes benefits from the talents seen in his occasionally unfocused debut. Working again with photographic supreme capo Conrad L. Hall, Mendes displays a visual imagination of stark beauty and operatic scope, and at times, it can be a bit much. The outright villainy of Jude Law, in a great supporting performance, helps relieve the sometimes overwhelming family matters, while welcome humor undercuts the ominous tone too occasionally, and a final voiceover threatens to tip the tone from high seriousness to high obviousness. Yet, as with American Beauty, Mendes offers two virtues for each of his film's faults, here wrapping an elegiac tale of generational shifts and altruistic damnation around a ripping adventure story in which virtually every participant waits for the bullet with his name.

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