136 – The Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition is one of those movies that’s heavy on mood and atmosphere but makes you stop and think every few minutes, “What the heck are these people doing in this movie?”

Tom Hanks is hitman Michael Sullivan, in the employ of local tough guy John Rooney (Paul Newman). Sullivan’s very effective at his job, and he’s equally effective in keeping his true occupation from his
young sons. On one fateful night, however, son Michael (Tyler Hoechlin) stows away on one of his father’s business trips and witnesses a slaying. Knowing the boy has seen far too much, Rooney’s own son decides to kill him – but gets the wrong boy (not to mention his mother).

So the Michaels young and old are on the run. Sullivan wants to get back at the man who killed his family, and that journey can only lead to one man – John Rooney.

There are several problems with this movie. The first is – surprisingly – in the casting. Hanks isn’t wrong for the part of Michael Sullivan, but there’s also no real need for him to play the part, either. He’s okay, but he’s just not as effective as Tom Hanks usually is. For someone who’s such a great and accomplished actor, Hanks had no need to take on this role, which conceivably could have been played by most actors in America.

Paul Newman isn’t any better. I know, sacrilege! Newman’s been in Hollywood for a long, long time, and he’s one of my all-time favorite performers. But the man’s getting old. I don’t mean he’s aging gracefully, although he had been doing that for many years. I mean he looks old – in this movie, he looked very haggard and weary, as if he had been working on the movie nonstop for seven months. There’s none
of that old fire and passion we’ve come to expect from Newman. There’s one scene in particular near the end in which his character confronts Hanks’s character, and – no lie here – he sounded like he was on Death’s door.

Oh, I know. He IS an old man. Newman’s 78 years old, now. But I’ve never seen him look and sound as bad as he did in this movie. The last movie I saw him in was Message in a Bottle (1999), in which he played Kevin Costner’s cantankerous father. And he was very, very good in that movie. He was funny, self-deprecating, engaging, and magnificent – aging gracefully, if you will. But this movie’s like the anathema to Message.

Imagine, a movie with Hanks and Newman! New guard and old guard! It should have been a real meeting of the thespians, a chance to compare the styles of two of the greatest ever to walk onto the silver screen. But it’s a major dissapointment, this acting summit. Hanks is earnest but a little insincere, and Newman looks like he’s walking in his sleep.

What makes this movie even more disappointing is the fact that it was directed by Sam Mendes, who wrote and directed American Beauty (1999). This is his first film since Beauty, but there’s none of the nuances of that masterpiece evident in this one. Was he just happy to work with acting legends?

There are some interesting, almost random funny moments, as when Michael, Jr. learns to drive the getaway car (they’re on the lam, remember), but overall it’s a bleak, uninspiring film. At least the title is appropriate, as “Perdition” means “eternal damnation,” which is what watching this movie sometimes felt like.

Road to Perdition: **

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