Directed by Sam Mendes starring Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, Stanley Tucci, Ciarán Hinds, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Liam Aiken
The idea of Tom Hanks playing a 1930s gangland enforcer would fill cynics with the same sense of excitement as the cast of 'Seventh Heaven' remaking 'Requiem for a Dream'. An actor who has come to embody all that is right, described as the James Stewart of his generation, picking up a Trilby and Tommy Gun and heading for one of the most barren and bloody decades in American history? And expecting us to believe he'd shoot someone in the face? But if 'Saving Private Ryan' showed Hanks delving into his onscreen persona by playing a more compromised hero, then 'Road to Perdition' sees him travel even further on this journey – but not far enough.
The right hand man and surrogate son of Illinois mob boss Joe Rooney (Newman), Michael Sullivan (Hanks) balances the mayhem of his job with the family idyll he shares with wife Annie (Leigh) and sons Michael Jr (Hoechlin) and Peter (Aiken). Sullivan's relationship with his boys is at best unemotional at worst authoritarian, but the greater the distance he puts between himself and his children, the more they want to know about him. Which leads to Michael Jr hiding out in a car while his father and Rooney's wastrel son Connor (Craig) go to clear up some awkward business.
Unable to keep his temper, and a desire to prove he's as good as Sullivan, in check, Connor turns a sit down into a shootout, 12-year-old Michael witnessing the entire bloodbath. Despite being sworn to secrecy by his father and Rooney Sr, Connor sees the youngster's mistake as a way to remove Sullivan from the mob. He organises a hit, but botches it, leaving Annie and Peter dead and forcing the two Michaels to go on the run, trying to work out a plan – and each other – along the way.
There is much to recommend here, from Conrad Hall's beautiful cinematography, to the impeccable sets, the performance of newcomer Hoechlin and of course, Newman. But 'Road to Perdition' is never as fulfilling as these elements suggest it will be. Adapted from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, Mendes and scriptwriter have toned down much of the visceral impact, but while that approach is commendable, it is not replaced with enough insights into the complexities of Hanks' character. We never get close to understanding how Sullivan deals with his demons and the consequences of his acts or just how ruthless he has been for Rooney. Compared to Jude Law's on-his-tail hitman (or even Clint Eastwood in 'Unforgiven'), Sullivan is always one of the good guys.
This is still a strong performance from Hanks (and those who aren't fans of his acting should enjoy it) but you just wish that the script had given him more of an opportunity to push himself. In a film about generations, the scenes he shares with Newman are always far stronger than his attempts to patch things up with his son. The road they're on is too familiar, with not enough about turns - you know how it will end, but there should have been more potholes along the way. A slow-moving film 'Perdition' may be, but the performances and feel were strong enough to merit an extra 20 miles or minutes.
It's easy, however, to sympathise with the challenge Mendes faced. If he played up the violence he could have developed the demons driving Sullivan. Instead, he chose the harder option and it just didn't come off. But it's no great shame, even if 'Road to Perdition' wins more Oscars than it deserves, it's still worth your time.