Like Father, Like Son

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Review of 'Road to Perdition', director Sam Mendes

This mobster movie is Sam Mendes's first film since 'American Beauty'. That film was distinguished by the quietly merciless poise with which Mendes scrutinised American middle class suburbia. By contrast, 'Road to Perdition' is an undistinguished film.

The setting is 1930s Chicago. The plot revolves around Michael Sullivan, played by Tom Hanks, a hitman and adopted son of Irish mafia boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). When Sullivan's 12 year old boy accidentally witnesses a killing committed by Rooney's own dissolute son Connor, Rooney Jr takes it upon himself to bury the evidence. To his father's horror, he murders Sullivan's wife and younger son while Sullivan and his 12 year old escape to plot revenge, pursued by hitman Maguire (Jude Law), reluctantly hired by Rooney Sr to protect his son.

Mendes uses this plot to explore what many others in this genre have explored before him--the moral contradictions provoked by family loyalty and betrayal. His special focus is the father/son relationship, one that bears the suspicious stamp of Steven Spielberg (his Dreamworks company produced this film jointly). To save his son from a life of crime Sullivan must carry on killing; to save the loose cannon son he wished he never had, Rooney Sr must carry on killing too.

Whether Tom Hanks can ever truly play a dark role is open to conjecture. Other Hollywood nice guys have certainly pulled it off--James Stewart did so brilliantly in the cold Anthony Mann westerns of the 1950s. But Hanks does not pull it off here. The modest integrity he carries with him everywhere--plainly visible even behind a curious moustache and dark heavy coats--is simply too jarring to be convincing. To be fair, his job is not eased by newcomer Tyler Hoechlin's portrayal of his young son. Hoechlin's stunning physical resemblance to 'Goodfellas' actor Ray Liotta fails to compensate for that great Spielbergian cliche of American cinema--juvenile blandness.

Paul Newman's performance is the best in the film. His aged and quivering vocal chords render the pain of his paternal predicament superbly well. And Newman deftly shows us a man whose impossible but indissoluble loyalty to his son gradually drains him of the will to live. Nevertheless, his fine portrayal is undermined by the hollow characterisation of Rooney Jr (Damien Craig)--in place of substance, we have only his craggy features to warn us he is a bad egg.

This picture is certainly well paced. The shootouts are exciting. Much time and money has been spent reproducing 1930s Chicago. But in the end the film is not as dark as it could and should have been. It lacks the sombre Machiavellian grit of 'The Godfather' or 'Goodfellas', and has nothing new or interesting to put in its place. Instead it slides relentlessly into sentimental sap about fathers and sons. Even Jude Law's quirky hitman, who has Charlie Chaplin feet and likes photographing corpses, serves only to remind us how much darker and better the rest of this film could surely have been.