Road To Perdition review

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He's the gee-golly man-child of Big. The lucky numpty of Forrest Gump. The dignified AIDS victim of Philadelphia. He's Tom Hanks. And he's going to blow your brains out.

Bye-bye nice guy. Hello vice guy. That's the theory at least. Hanks, sporting Tommy gun and 'tache, is a killer in Road To Perdition. Michael Sullivan: a ruthless, immutable hitman in Depression-era Chicago. Yet no matter how many corpses he creates, the camera captures Hanks' probity. It's both a blessing and a curse. "There are many stories about Michael Sullivan," says Sullivan Jr (Tyler Hoechlin). "Some say he was a decent man, some say he was no good at all." So, from the off, we're asked: which is it? The only rational response is: "Are you kidding? He's Tom Hanks! Of course he's a decent man."

More convincingly ambiguous is Paul Newman's Irish crime boss John Rooney, who must choose between the son he wishes was his and the malicious weasel Fate handed him, Connor (the excellent Daniel Craig). When Hanks turns renegade, who will Rooney save? In a sombre and ultimately didactic drama, Newman is a steely-eyed, unforgettable presence. ""There's only one guarantee"," he tells Hanks. ""None of us will see heaven"." It's a charged, emotional confrontation where the younger actor, for once, forgets to underact.

The divine is a theme throughout. A disgruntled mourner tells Newman: ""You've come to rule this town like God rules the Earth""; we first glimpse Hanks handling a rosary and a pistol; Perdition is the town the fugitives are heading for. Its meaning? Hell and damnation.

Hand-me-down violence is another of the Godfather themes shot in a Godfather style by arch-cinematographer Conrad Hall. A shame there's no Godfather plot. Fatalism may be an essential theme of Max Allan Collins' graphic novel (adapted by Thirteen Days writer David Self), but does that mean the story has to be so predictable?

Sam Mendes proved with American Beauty that he isn't afraid of spilling the narrative beans early, but the whodunnit element and sparky character dynamics kept the viewer gripped. Here, the story is so stripped down and simple that no amount of artistic framing and mind-snaring `moments' can quite nudge Mendes' movie from the good towards the greatness it so obviously aspires to (although the hotel shoot-out with Jude Law's Chaplin-esque assassin really is superb). For, despite Perdition's pop culture roots - - and the lifts from movies as varied as Get Carter and The Shootist - - Mendes clearly wants to make an `important' film. And, typical of Spielberg's DreamWorks, it has to have a message, though its heavy-handed father-son reconciliation motif is unconvincing. There's inventiveness, intelligence, even brilliance here. It's just tempered by a style so downbeat it occasionally comes off as pompous. Don't underplay it again, Sam.

Touched by both self-importance and genius, Sam Mendes' portentous sophomore effort focuses on Tom Hanks but hinges on Paul Newman. The 77-year-old legend should earn Oscar number two.

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