There’s a terrible disease running rampant in Hollywood. It’s called Oscar-itis, and its symptoms are easy to spot. Whenever you see a prominent actor take on the role of a mentally challenged or physically handicapped character, you can bet the illness has taken hold. And when a talented director drains all the lifeblood from his movies and replaces it with embalming fluid, you know he’s got a terminal case.
Sam Mendes isn’t terminal yet —Road to Perdition is only the second feature film he’s directed, following 1999’s Best Picture winner American Beauty — but he’s definitely symptomatic. Based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, Perdition takes a simple revenge tale, adds a dollop of sins-of-the-father melodrama, and inflates the flimsy result to Biblical proportions. Mendes has made a mountain out of molehill, then carved the faces of Tom Hanks and Paul Newman onto it in an attempt at forging a cinematic Mt. Rushmore.
Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a hit man working for Newman’s John Rooney, mob boss of a Chicago suburb in the era of Al Capone. Rooney is like a father to Sullivan, and Sullivan has two boys of his own, Peter (Liam Akin) and Mike (Tyler Hoechlin). Curious about what his dad does for a living, Mike tags along with him one night, hiding in the back seat of the car that Michael and partner Connor Rooney drive to their latest job. Mike watches wide-eyed as his father and Connor gun down a potential snitch.
Though Mike promises he’ll never tell what he saw, the paranoid Connor (who happens to be the boss’s son) isn’t buying it. He arranges for Michael to walk into a death trap, then storms the Sullivan house and guns down Michael’s wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and son. He gets the wrong kid, however, and Michael and Mike escape into the night. After a meeting with Capone associate Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), Michael realizes that the organization will never allow him to satisfy his thirst for vengeance as long as Connor’s father is alive. Michael and his son bond as they go on a bank-robbing spree, stealing Capone’s cash in hopes of gaining some bargaining leverage, unaware that another hired killer (Jude Law) is now on their trail.
Despite the pre-release speculation that Perdition would serve as the vehicle for Tom Hanks’ first "bad guy" performance, the star delivers another of his flawed but noble saints. Sure, Michael Sullivan is a killer, but since almost everyone else in the movie is more vicious, and they’re all out to get him, he comes off as a guy who’s just doing what he’s gotta do to protect his son. Hanks gives one of his most internalized performances; mostly he’s just glum and remote. Newman has some spark in an early scene at an Irish wake, but the only actor who seems fully engaged is Jude Law. As a maniacal killer who likes to take stylish photographs of his victims, he supplies an impudent energy reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Too bad his appearances are so fleeting.
American Beauty wasn’t a perfect movie, but it had a zippy, ironic tone all its own. The director’s credit doesn’t appear until the end of Road to Perdition; if you walked into a screening cold, you’d swear it was a movie by master of bloat Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Majestic). It comes as a surprise to learn the running time is only 111 minutes—it feels like a three hour film. Nearly every scene is leaden, weighed down with portent and production designed to death. Torrents of rain are always pouring from the brims of fedoras while grim-faced men fire tommy guns into other grim-faced men who tumble to their doom in artful slow motion. When some corny humor leaks into a sequence in which Michael teaches his son to drive, the audience laughs more from relief than genuine mirth.
The father-and-son theme isn’t new to the gangster genre; mob stories from The Godfather to The Sopranos have covered that ground quite well. But Road to Perdition treats this theme with the kind of grandiose solemnity Academy Award voters can’t resist. It would be a shame if Mendes became just another purveyor of Oscar bait; here’s hoping Perdition is simply a bump in the road.