MIDDLE OF THE ROAD 

Other than the highly bankable presence of Tom Hanks, Road to Perdition at first seems as out of place in the midst of the summer blockbuster season as an oil slick on a bathing beach. The setting is the pre-rust Rust Belt Midwest in the deepest despond of the Great Depression. Pissing-down rain, slushy gray snow, and bare brown fields abound; the dark, woody interiors, shot by veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall, are relentlessly funereal. And the first half of this tale — wherein Irish-mob button man Mike Sullivan (Hanks) runs afoul of his boss/adoptive father, John Rooney (Paul Newman), and hits the road with his young son Michael (Tyler Hoechlin) — is relentlessly grim as both Mike and Michael learn the murderous lengths to which their respective father figures will go in the name of protecting what's theirs. But in the end, director Sam Mendes balks at the darker and more ambiguous implications of the story and delivers a film as ultimately unchallenging, predictable, and unaffecting as any rote piece of midsummer butts-in-stadium-seats studio product with a Burger King tie-in.

Road to Perdition wouldn't be so disappointing if it weren't so promising. Whether Mendes' Best Director Oscar for American Beauty seemed to you like an unusually astute nod or another pat on the back for an overly glib filmmaker, he proves he's got a bulging bag of effective visual-storytelling tricks here. Shooting mostly from Michael's wide-eyed-but-getting-wise point of view, Mendes quickly fleshes out a bleak little town where Newman's smiling despot rules over a tight-knit community of Irish Catholic families. Everything is gentility and sentimental Old World palaver on top, subsidized vice and workmanlike violence underneath. Michael doesn't know exactly what his taciturn father does for jovial Mr. Rooney, but he does notice (as does the audience) that his dad packs a gat along with a rosary. More and more curious about what his father does when he goes to work, Michael stows away in the family car one night and, in a bravura sequence, finds out more than he ever wanted to know about his father's affairs, setting in motion a chain of events that destroys everything he has ever known and rousts the entire Midwestern underworld (including its Chicago headquarters, represented by Stanley Tucci as Al Capone lieutenant Frank Nitti).

The film's first half is a corker, each finely observed, subtly handled scene building into the next, but some of its second-half troubles rear their heads early. David Self's script is based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, so perhaps it's not a surprise that the film's initial problems are somewhat comic-book-ish. When introducing Rooney's natural son Connor (the vulpine Daniel Craig), for example, Mendes lays on the bad-man foreshadowing with an elephant-dung shovel. Any remaining subtly is forever gimped when Jude Law's Maguire shows up. With his bowler and too-short trousers, gnarled and yellowed teeth and nails, and plucked-back hairline, Law's psychotic photographer/hit man is almost comically ghoulish — a loud clam in what had up until then been a brooding étude on loyalty, morality, family, and fate.

The role of Mike Sullivan must have appealed to Hanks for a number of reasons, not least because it ostensibly goes against his lovable Everyman grain. Always his best at his least showy, Hanks at first does wonders with Sullivan by seemingly doing very little, letting a thin moustache on a stiff upper lip and a boxy winter coat do most of his acting for him. But while Mendes makes much of Michael's angst over the significant differences between his gun-toting dad and his gun-toting comic-book hero, the Lone Ranger, Mike turns out to be yet another lovable Hanks Everyman: He robs from the rich, is nice to working folks, and only needs to have his criminal calling come crashing down around his ears and ruin his life in order to get closer to his son. (The rest of the big-name cast is similarly ill-used. Newman, great in the early going, winds up spending much of the movie wringing his hands; Jennifer Jason Leigh's character is identified in the credits as "wife.") And young Hoechlin, a dead ringer for a baby Ray Liotta, is the movie's Achilles' heel; he doesn't really draw the audience into Michael's shoes as much as he needs to in order to sell the story's emotional goods.

Far down the way from its gritty origin point, Road to Perdition winds up being one of those movies where the villain pops up again like clockwork the moment all seems well, where bullets splatter a picture window with blood but don't break it, where the whole thing ends up with a sunny meadow and a romping dog. It'll make a perfectly good candidate for TNT's Saturday-afternoon prestige-picture slot, a ready replacement once the network finally gives The Shawshank Redemption a rest.

ROAD TO PERDITION
"Starts out a Beauty, settles for rote"
Dir. Sam Mendes; writ. Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner; feat. Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Jennifer Jason Lee (R)

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