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Gangstas' Purgatory

 

Road to Perdition

Sam Mendes, USA, 2002

Rating: 2.5

 

 

Posted: July 13, 2002

By Laurence Station

In the Japanese film Shogun Assassin, released in the U.S. in 1980, a shogun's executioner -- falsely accused of treason -- is forced into exile, and roams the countryside as a wandering ronin (a masterless samurai), accompanied by his infant son. Assassin was a gratuitous amalgamation of the most shockingly violent scenes from the first two of director Kenji Misumi's popular "Baby Cart" films of the '70s, themselves based upon the celebrated manga series Lone Wolf and Cub. (The name "Baby Cart" came from Cub's ridiculously well equipped stroller, hiding all manner of lethal weaponry.) In manga and movie(s) alike, the basic premise was the same: Father and son were traveling on the road to meifumado, the Japanese version of Hell. Although the assassin could hope to realize vengeance against his enemies before the journey came to a close, the fates of man and boy were already sealed.

In 1998, crime novelist and sometime comic scribe Max Allan Collins (Ms. Tree, the Dick Tracy newspaper comic strip) -- aided by comic artist Richard Piers Rayner (John Constantine: Hellblazer) transplanted the heart of the Lone Wolf and Cub tale from feudal Japan to Depression-era America in the graphic novel Road to Perdition, from which this 21st century American update of Shogun Assassin takes most of its cues.

Enough with the backstory: Perdition follows the tale of Michael Sullivan (a miscast Tom Hanks, way too likable for the lead role), a somewhat distant, home-in-time-for-dinner family man whose job happens to be enforcer for local Chicago-area Irish mob boss John Rooney (an underused Paul Newman). Rooney has taken Michael under his wing, and treats him like a son -- more so than his own offspring Connor (an effectively conflicted Daniel Craig). When Sullivan's son Michael Jr. decides to hide in dad's car one night to find out just what his father does for a living, the boy witnesses Connor in the act of a gangland execution. This gives Connor a convenient outlet for his jealousy; he sends Michael on a doomed mission, meanwhile running off to dispose of the rest of the Sullivan family (other son Liam Aiken and a neglected Jennifer Jason Leigh as Michael's wife) in hopes of covering up any evidence of the earlier slaying.

Thus, like Lone Wolf and Cub before them, Michael and his surviving son spend the rest of the movie avenging their family, the main differences being the lack of a customized baby cart and Junior seeing no more action than that afforded as driver of the getaway car for dad's morally justified bank-robbing spree (he only takes "dirty" mob money, in hopes of forcing the gangsters to give Connor up to him).

The film, directed by Academy Award winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty), draws on a lot of top-drawer talent. David Self's screenplay is peppered with strong dialogue; Thomas Newman's score is appropriately melodramatic when called for and warmly subdued during quieter moments. And Conrad L. Hall's photography is elegant and smartly framed; the period detail looks right.

Unfortunately, Road to Perdition is undone by Mendes' choice of tone. Perdition is so serious, intent on examining the complex relationships between fathers and sons, that it seems more akin to an adaptation of Turgenev than a big budget motion picture based on a graphic novel inspired by an ultra-violent Japanese comic book.

Also, Mendes' decision to have Michael (archangel of death, anyone?) react to all of the violence around him, rather than incite any directly, proves fatal. (Perhaps he was concerned that audiences wouldn't buy good old Tom Hanks harming anyone that didn't provoke him first.) That he's considered a feared assassin of the Capone-controlled Chicago mob is never once credibly established.

Worse, Road to Perdition contains no surprises. Where are Michael and son seeking refuge after the betrayal? Why, in a town called Perdition, of course. The problem's not so much that Mendes telegraphs where his film is headed, as it is the path to that belabored destination just feels stale, and all too rote: Rooney favors Michael over his own son, so the son will find a way to fix Michael, who will then go about gaining revenge on his own terms, while the son he was never close to gets to know his father for the very first time, etc., etc. Such predictability proves distressingly uninvolving for the viewer. (The one intriguing twist comes in the form of Maguire, a crime scene photographer-slash-hitman who stalks Michael and his son. Jude Law invests this role -- absent from the graphic novel -- with much needed energy, and proves to be the film's one narrative highlight.)

Road to Perdition is a movie built by Oscar Winners and for Oscar voters. It will undoubtedly garner a few nominations come Awards time, and maybe even take home a golden statuette or two. But thirty years from now, it's unlikely many will recall much about Perdition, save as a bloated remake of a Japanese samurai series that never once elevated itself, as Perdition fatally does, above the base pretensions of its target audience -- an audience that simply wants to be entertained, and not spoon-fed half-baked familial "enlightenment."

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