Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition (15)

Hollywood is already soaked in talk about this astoundingly inventive gangster epic – a Godfather for the 21st century – which boasts yet another sensational performance from Tom Hanks and the performance of his career from Paul Newman.

Set in Chicago during the Depression Road to Perdition chronicles the fall from grace of Tommy gun-toting assassin Michael Sullivan (Hanks), known to friends and enemies alike as the Angel of Death. Sullivan hides his murderous trade – he works as an unforgiving enforcer for Irish villain John Rooney (Newman) – from his wife and kids, killing to order and with ne’er a regret for his bullet-ridden victims. But when Sullivan’s son witnesses a Mob hit, he and the boy must run for their lives as Rooney’s ravenous dogs, led by his unbalanced son (Daniel Craig), come after them.

The second feature from Sam (American Beauty) Mendes has already been hailed as a modern classic and, with universally excellent performances, mouth-watering cinematography by Conrad L. Hall, the two-time Oscar winner for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and American Beauty, and a memorable, rain-drenched milieu, it deserves all the plaudits it receives.

A magnificent saga, Road to Perdition is that rare thing – a traditional Greek tragedy that turns into a near-perfect motion picture. Based as it is on a graphic novel – a medium-brow comic book – it is far less layered than The Godfather, Mario Puzo’s mammoth novel that provided Francis Ford Coppola with the groundwork for his sensational movie and first sequel.

Instead it is a simple story of revenge, good versus evil and something approaching redemption as Hanks, utterly convincing as a taciturn gunman, hits the road with his child. More than anything else Road to Perdition is a story of fathers and sons – Hanks and his boy, Newman and Hanks, his adoptive son, and Newman and Craig, his psychotic son by blood.

In transferring the story from comic book art to movie screen Mendes has reinvented the gangster movie genre. This is a throwback to Little Caesar, Scarface and The Roaring Twenties while, at the same time, incorporating elements of Once Upon a Time in America, The Cotton Club, Godfather II and, incredibly, Paper Moon.

Hanks is mesmerising as the Jekyll and Hyde figure who plays stern father to his kids by day while, at night, he strides through the rain to machine gun the enemies of his boss. He doesn’t speak much; the explosive rat-a-tat of his Thompson says everything for him.

Newman is amazing. He’s corralled everything he’s learned from almost 50 years of film acting into his performance as the grizzled, growling old mobster who can lament the passing of a good friend whose life was ended at his command, and then throw a wake in his honour.

This is the flipside of Don Corleone but, make no mistake, John Rooney is as murderous as his Sicilian cousin. Newman radiates menace and power, and his gravelly tones resemble a continuous death rattle. He’s a seriously scary old man.

Jude Law is the only weak link in an otherwise generally flawless film. A yellow-toothed, balding assassin who likes to photograph his recently deceased victims, his travelling hitman (replete with roving accent) appears out of step with the rest of the cast.

Yet despite the acting treasures on display here the real star of this brilliant movie is Conrad Hall’s cinematography. Beautiful, mournful, rich and evocative, it provides the perfect backdrop to this epic tale and edges it within a whisper of being a modern masterpiece.

High praise based on hype? Not a bit. Believe everything you’ve read. And when it comes to Oscar time in March, look out for Mendes, Hanks, Newman, Hall, Craig, scriptwriter David (Thirteen Days) Self, production designer Dennis (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) Gassner and composer Thomas Newman among the nominees. They’re all a shoo-in.

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