Road to Perdition

on July 12, 2002 by Wade Major
   Between 1972 and 1974 two distinctly different cinematic sagas took hold of opposing ends of the Pacific: "The Godfather" and its sequel in Hollywood and the half-dozen "Lone Wolf and Cub" films in Japan, sometimes better known stateside by their 1980 abridgement, "Shogun Assassin." Surely no one at the time would have imagined that, 30 years later, such unlikely bedfellows would yield an offspring. And yet that is precisely what has happened with the DreamWorks/ Fox co-production "Road to Perdition."

   The much-awaited sophomore effort from "American Beauty" director Sam Mendes, "Road to Perdition" pairs two bona-fide screen giants -- Tom Hanks and Paul Newman -- in a Depression/Prohibition-era story of a mob enforcer (Hanks) who, betrayed by his boss (Newman), determines to turn the tables on the syndicate, embarking on a path of revenge with his son (Liam Aiken) through which he aims to ultimately redeem the boy from the life of his father.

   Although ties to "The Godfather" are more obvious -- the studio is proudly trumpeting the comparisons -- any mention of links to "Lone Wolf and Cub" are impossible to find. Press notes instead cite the source material as Max Allan Collins' graphic novel, though fans have long recognized Collins' effort as little more than an Americanized version of the original Japanese Manga comic series on which the "Lone Wolf and Cub" films were themselves based. Indeed, despite the obvious thematic parity to "The Godfather," the plot of "Perdition" is straight-up "Shogun Assassin," in which a betrayed samurai and his infant son seek similar vengeance upon their former master. Even the title seems to pay homage to the Japanese series, the fifth entry of which was titled in English as "Crossroads to Hell."

   In view of this fascinating, if roundabout lineage, some might naturally expect "Road to Perdition" to be a dramatically dynamic piece of storytelling of a piece with those from which it's descended. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with children too eager to grow up and fill their parents' shoes, "Road to Perdition" is frustratingly immature, more a shadow than a reflection of its forbears, sincere but naive in its intentions, ultimately unwilling to take the risks that might distinguish it on its own merits.

   To be sure, it's not easy to fault a film like "Road to Perdition." There is much to admire: Conrad Hall's dazzling, poetic cinematography; Thomas Newman's elegiac score; a powerhouse performance from Paul Newman as well as the sensitive perfectionism that audiences have come to expect so regularly from Tom Hanks. It's clear that this is a film that aspires to greatness, even longs for it. And, in several remarkable stretches, it attains it. But such sporadic swells serve only to expose the nagging lulls. For all their meticulous attention to photography, Mendes and Hall have shown far too much reverence for the graphic novel, replicating its look in such detail -- right down to specific images -- that the film often feels as though it's at a standstill. Some portions of the picture are posed in so painterly a fashion that the actors almost seem afraid to move for fear of disturbing the composition. The painfully archetypal dynamics -- fathers and sons and the sins they risk passing from one generation to the next -- are also too familiar, especially in this genre. Characters appear designed to conform more to expectations than spontaneity. Even the casting of the ever-popular Hanks, who is undeniably good, seems like a cheat, an easy way to generate instant audience sympathy for a cold-blooded killer without necessarily having to earn it.

   Ironically, the points at which the film finally does distinguish itself from both "The Godfather" and "Lone Wolf and Cub" wind up being the very points where it should be emulating them. Instead of taking the road less traveled, Mendes and his collaborators opt for tried-and-true Hollywood classicism, religiously conforming to a formula that "The Godfather," in particular, helped deconstruct. They have, in essence, created a movie that is all lipstick and no teeth, that attempts to bite off more than it can chew. Only, in this case, it's the audience that is being asked to swallow it. Starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Liam Aiken, Stanley Tucci and Daniel Craig. Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by David Self. Produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Dean Zanuck and Sam Mendes. A DreamWorks release. Period Drama. Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 115 min

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