Friday, March 7, 2014

"ROAD TO PERDITION" (2002) Review



"ROAD TO PERDITION" (2002) Review

Back in 1998, DC Comics published a graphic novel about a Depression-era criminal enforcer who is betrayed by his employers and forced to hit the roads of the American Midwest with his young son on a quest for revenge. Written by Max Allan Collins, the novel caught the attention of producers Richard and Dean Zanuck and was adapted into film directed by Sam Mendes. 

"ROAD TO PERDITION" began during the late winter of 1931, in Rock Island, Illinois. Michael Sullivan serves as an enforcer for Irish mob boss, John Rooney, who seemed to regard him a lot higher than the latter's unstable son, Connor Rooney. Sullivan is also a happily married man with two sons - Michael Jr. and Peter. However, his relationship with Michael is forced, due to Sullivan's fear that his older son might turn out to be like him. The Sullivan family attends the wake for one Danny McGovern, a local associate who does bootlegging business with Sullivan family. During the wake, the Rooneys and Sullivan become wary of Finn McGovern, who has expressed suspicions about his younger brother's death. Connor and Sullivan are ordered by Rooney to talk to Finn. 

Connor argues with Finn over the latter's suspicions about his brother's death, before killing the latter. Sullivan is forced to gun down McGovern's men. And this is all witnessed by Michael, who had hidden in his father's car out of curiosity. Despite Sullivan swearing his son to secrecy and Rooney pressuring Connor to apologize for the reckless action, Connor murders Sullivan's wife Annie and younger son Peter, mistaking the latter for Michael. He also tries to set up a hit on Sullivan at a speakeasy. But the enforcer manages to kill his would-be murderer first. Sullivan escapes to Chicago with Michael in order to seek employment from Al Capone's right-hand man Frank Nitti and discover the location of the now hidden Connor. However, Nitti rejects Sullivan's proposal and informs Rooney of the meeting. The Irish-born mobster reluctantly allows Nitti to recruit assassin Harlen Maguire, who is also a crime scene photographer, to kill Sullivan.

I might as well be frank. The only reason that drew my attention to "ROAD TO PERDITION" was the movie's Depression-era setting. I have always been fascinated by the 1930s decade, despite Hollywood's inconsistent portrayal of it in the past 50 to 60 years. The fact that Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law were among the stars in the cast helped maintain my interest until the movie's release date. However, I still harbor doubts that I would truly enjoy a story about a father and son on the road in early 1930s Midwest or that it would draw any high regard on my part. Thankfully, the movie proved me wrong. Not only did"ROAD TO PERDITION" proved to be both an entertaining character study of various father-and-son relationships, but also a fascinating road trip and crime drama. I once came upon Max Allan Collins' graphic novel at a bookstore not long after the movie’s initial release. I could not remember exactly what I had read, but I do recall realizing that the movie’s screenwriter, David Self, took a good deal of liberties with Collins' plot . . . and that he was wise to do so. Enjoyable as the graphic novel was, I could also see that it was not possible to do a complete faithful adaptation of it. 

Despite being a combination of a crime drama, a revenge tale and a road trip; the main theme that seemed to permeated "ROAD TO PERDITION" was the relationships between father and son. There is one line in the film uttered by Paul Newman's John Rooney that pretty much summed up the film:

"Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers."

This certainly seemed to be the case in the relationship between Sullivan and Michael Jr. at the beginning of the film. Sullivan fears that Michael might follow his footsteps into crime, because they share personality traits. Unfortunately, he solves this problem by maintaining an emotional distance from his older son. John Rooney's relationship with his son Connor is hampered by his lack of respect for the latter, his closer relationship with Sullivan, and Connor's insecurities. Only Sullivan and Rooney seemed to have a close and easy-going father/son relationship at the beginning of the film, despite a lack of blood connection. And yet, that close relationship ended up being easily shattered thanks to Connor's act of murder and the determination of both men to protect their own sons. Other gangster films have portrayed the impact of crime on families . . . but not with such complexity. 

I believe that "ROAD TO PERDITION" is probably the first motion picture on both sides of the Atlantic that perfectly re-captured the 1930s . . . especially the first half of the decade. One cannot bring up the movie without mentioning the late Conrad Hall, whose brilliant Oscar winning photography re-captured the bleak landscape of Depression-era Midwest. This was especially apparent in the following scenes:

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Richard L. Johnson's Academy Award nominated art direction and Albert Wolsky's costume designs also added to the movie's setting. I especially have to compliment Wolsky for conveying how fashion was in the midst of transforming during that period from the shorter skirts of the 1920s to the longer ones of the 1930s. This was especially reflected in the conservative costumes worn by Jennifer Jason Leigh and other actresses in the movie. Usually I am not in the habit of noticing the sound in any film. But I must admit that I noticed how sound was effectively used in this film, especially in one scene in the second half that featured some brutal murders committed by a Thompson sub-machine gun. Not surprisingly, Scott Millan, Bob Beemer and John Pritchett all received Oscar nominations for Best Sound and Best Sound Editing.

There were aspects of "ROAD TO PERDITION" that I found unappealing or puzzling. The movie is more or less a well paced movie. But there is a period in the film - following Sullivan's failed attempt to acquire employment with the Capone organization - that it nearly dragged to a halt. Director Sam Mendes seemed so enamored of Conrad Hall's photography of the Illinois landscape during the Sullivans' journey from Chicago that he seemed to have lost his hold of the pacing. Also, I found myself wondering what happened to Sullivan's sister-in-law - the one who had offered them refuge at her lakeside home in Perdition. By the time the enforcer and his son arrived, her house had been abandoned. What happened to her and the house? The movie never explained.

The Zanucks, Sam Mendes and the movie's casting director collected a group of exceptional performers for the cast. "ROAD TO PERDITION" featured solid performances from Ciarán Hinds as the grieving and later murdered Finn McGovern, Liam Aiken as Sullivan's younger son Peter, and a very entertaining Dylan Baker as the Rooneys' accountant, Alexander Rance. Both Doug Spinuzza and Kevin Chamberlin were entertaining and memorable as brothel keeper Tony Calvino and his hired bouncer Frank. Stanley Tucci gave a restrained and intelligent performance as Al Capone's right-hand man, Frank Nitti. Despite portraying the only major female role in the film - namely Annie Sullivan - Jennifer Jason-Leigh let her presence be known as Sullivan's warm and loving wife, who also happened to know the truth about his real profession.

I realize that many might find this hard to believe, but I first became aware of Daniel Craig, thanks to his very interesting portrayal of Connor Rooney. Someone once complained that Connor never developed as a character. Well, of course not. Any man who would recruit a hophead pimp to kill a very competent hit man like Michael Sullivan Sr. must be a loser. And Craig did a superb job in conveying the character's insecurities. Jude Law was deliciously creepy as Capone hit man Harlan Maguire, who was not only a very competent killer, but who also seemed to harbor a fetish for photographing dead bodies. Law also had a very good grasp of American dialogue from the 1930s. I was happy to learn that Tyler Hoechlin was still acting. A talent like his should never go to waste. And I must admit that not only he was superb as Michael Sullivan, Jr., he also did a great job in conveying young Michael's emotional journey throughout the film. 

Paul Newman earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the aging Irish gangster, John Rooney. It is a pity that he lost the award, because he was superb as the charming and intelligent Rooney. Newman was also very effective in conveying Rooney's more intimidating aspects of his character. Although Rooney was not his very last role, it was among his last . . . and probably one of his best. Tom Hanks did not receive any acting nominations for his performance as enforcer Michael Sullivan Sr. Not only am I puzzled, but very disappointed. As far as I am concerned, Sullivan was one of the better roles of his career. He gave a superb performance as the tight-jawed and no-nonsense family man, who also happened to be a first-rate hit man. What I found so amazing about Hanks' performance is the manner in which he balanced Sullivan's no-nonsense family man persona and the ruthlessness that made the character such a successful criminal.

If I had to select my favorite Sam Mendes film, it would have to be "ROAD TO PERDITION". I have never seen "AMERICAN BEAUTY". And I do not exactly consider his other films better. Yes, the movie has its flaws, including a pacing that nearly dragged to a halt midway. But its virtues - superb direction by Mendes, an excellent cast led by Tom Hanks, and a rich atmosphere that beautifully re-captured the American Midwest during the early years of the Great Depression - made "ROAD TO PERDITION" a personal favorite of mine.

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