Road to Perdition

dir: Sam Mendes
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I have been waiting a long time to watch this film, and it has to be said that I was not disappointed, but it was not the film I expected it to be.

It's a beautiful film, to be sure to be, to be sure, but I can't help but feel that the film kind of collapses under the weight of its own self-importance. Every scene is immaculately constructed, scored and acted, and it all has this pervading gravitas which is supposed to be reminding us constantly of how serious it all is, but it did make me wonder: does a story this simple justify such an extravaganza?

For it is an utterly simple story: good man gets done wrong, good man vows revenge and takes on the mob, good man kills pretty much anyone that ever pissed him off. This has been a staple for so long that you know everything that will come to pass before the opening credits have finished rolling.

Regardless of the fact that its based on a graphic novel, which in turn is ripped off from a Japanese serial called Wolf and Cub, about a noble but nasty ronin samurai who travels with his son, I can name at least a bunch of other media that have used this same story. Hell, excluding the kid factor even Max Payne, the
hyperviolent PC computer game has essentially the same plot. Wait, even Renegade on TV, the cheesy Stephen J Cannell show about the Outlaw hunting Outlaws has the initial story. A book I read recently, Spares, by Michael Marshall Smith had the same plot. Now that I think of it, every second action film has this
plot. Hell, didn't Gladiator have the same essential story?

This doesn't invalidate its use again, I'm not trying to say that. I generally believe that no matter how simple a story is, or how often it's been told before, if it's told well enough or in an inventive enough manner, it's okay.

But whether that means it needs to be raised it to the status of ancient Greek tragedy or Shakespearean pantaloon wrenching fun is another question entirely. I can't imagine that the film could have been made any better: the cinematography is superlative, the scene construction and set design is immaculate, the acting is
uniformly excellent. So why am I still feeling like I ordered steak and got Spam instead?

I'm not entirely sure, but I think it has something to do with the fact that the story is so simple-minded and lacks any real complexity. Of course you can read anything you want into it, you could say that it is a moving portrayal of the increased alienation of fathers from their sons in the modern era as a result of industrialisation and Reaganomics, or that it's about the lingering repercussions of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I just don't see it. There is no subtext. It's pretty simple. What happens is what happens, nothing more nothing less. You'd expect more from the people involved, especially from such a calculated piece of Oscar-bait such as this.

It's written all over the place in big fucking letters: This Is An Important Film, We Will Be Expecting Many Nominations In The New Year Or Else. But the film never really makes us an offer that we can't refuse as an audience.

Perhaps another reason for it, to quote another critic or two, and to reference the person I saw the film with: it's all so inevitable. Because you know everything that's going to happen beforehand, because the film proceeds at a leisurely pace to an expected conclusion, it's hard to get too attached to the
characters. I don't entirely agree with that, as an essential component of tragedy is that the nasty ending is often visible from the outset, usually to the protagonist as well, but for a whole bunch of reasons they have to proceed accordingly to their destined end.

The inevitability didn't bug me so much. But on the way there I wanted something slightly more than one of Thomas Newman's ubiquitous and generic scores to keep me entertained. Don't get me wrong, I liked the film on a number of levels. In my opinion, however, if a film is going to cloak itself in the cloth of
self-importance and weighty significance, then I would prefer indeed that there be some substance underneath it all to support the edifice of its own pretentions.

Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, an Irish American enforcer for the mob. His boss is also his adoptive father, who considers him a better son than his own biological son, Conner, who is an arsehole of the highest order. Conner murders Michael Sullivan's wife and youngest son. Michael Sullivan takes his remaining son
on the road as he vows revenge on Conner Rooney.

Russell "Let me start a drunken barroom brawl with you and have my martial arts expert female bodyguard finish the fight for me and save my arse" Crowe plays Maximus in Gladiator, as a General for the Roman armies. His emperor, Marcus Aurelius, considers him a better son than his own biological son, Commodus, who is an effeminate, sociopathic arsehole of the highest order. Commodus has Maximus' family butchered, Maximus vows revenge etc etc.

Alongside each other, you have to wonder whether these sceenwriters occasionally toke from the same crackpipe, so to speak.

Tom Hanks puts in a decent performance. He plays no more of a 'bad' guy here than he does in any of his other films. He plays more of a bad guy in 'League of Their Own'. Here he is still essentially a decent, upstanding moral taxpayer, except he kills people for his boss. Let us have no illusions: ain't none
of these motherfuckers 'good' people, but there are shades of grey which are supposed to come into it, which rarely do in this film at least. We are supposed to see him as a decent man because we are viewing him through the eyes of a son that wants to see him as such. His actions are justifiable within the context of
the film because he is trying to protect his remaining son, knowing that the cost will be especially great. At least by the limited standards available to your average Hollywood screenwriter.

The essence is vengeance: if his mission be justifiable due to his righteous vengeance in his wife and child's honour, then we are expected to be drawn in. His convoluted path in exacting this revenge kinda makes sense initially, but later on looks like they were drawing the film out unnecessarily. His path could just have
easily been from A bad guy to B bad guy, but then we wouldn't have had the dubious virtue of watching him bond with his son, also called Michael. This bonding involves teaching his kid to drive, and getting him to be the getaway driver as he pulls some bank jobs in order to piss off the mob. Stirring stuff. I wish my dad had involved me in some grand larceny and some armed robbery. But maybe it could have been 'justified' because it was just mob money. Yeah, that's it, and I would have thought he was still a decent guy.

Make no mistake, Michael Sullivan senior is a bad motherfucker with a gun, especially with a tommy gun. The 'action' scenes, if you can call them such in a film as sedately paced as this, are beautifully realised. One particular one, being Michael's nighttime attack on his former boss and his henchmen as he shoot from the shadows is truly superb.

Other than that, we are meant to wait for the inevitable, and I don't expect that we are meant to be surprised.

Jude Law as Maguire, a hired assassin with horrible teeth and a love of death and murder is suitably creepy, being the only character that seems to relish his role. Paul Newman puts in a good performance as well as the elder head of this particular outpost of the mob during Prohibition era, he is great, and I'd be surprised if the Academy doesn't give him a Best Supporting Actor nomination next year, at least out of sympathy. But he is a doddering old fool, so they should give it to someone else instead. Jennifer Jason Leigh's job as Sullivan's wife is solely to die, and she gets three lines of dialogue.

Tyler Hoechlin as Sullivan's son didn't really endear himself to me. It's his show, but I didn't like the kid though he did a decent job. Whilst I'm glad they didn't put in Haley Joel Osment or some other precocious little fuck in the role, the kid really didn't have the acting chops required. We are meant to watch this all through the child's eyes, instead we just wait for him to get out of the way so that some bad shit can happen. Stanley Tucci puts in a sterling performance as Capone's legendary enforcer Frank Nitti, but his scenes are too few and far between. Everyone is great, I shouldn't bother singling anyone else out, whatever problems the film may or may not have had, the acting was certainly not one of them.

The pervasive feeling throughout the film is grim sadness. It is technically proficient, beautifully shot and persistently well performed. But the nagging lack of substance means this film doesn't really rank up there with the greats. I will certainly purchase this film in future on DVD just to watch the exquisite scenery, but I'm hardly going to hail this as the second coming. Sam Mendes managed to stun many people with his debut feature American Beauty, and rightly so. That film had problems as well, but without doubt managed to tell a compelling story which still resonates with certain middle aged middle class men that fantasise about ditching their dreary jobs and fucking teenage girls.

Here he wanted to ellevate a mundane story with some of the best and most expensive set design outside of a Lucasfilm production. His theatre background notwithstanding, he is only partly successful. Which is not a shame, it's just that it could have been something more substantial than this.

Still, I think I enjoyed it overall despite the overwhelming feeling of dread that permeates everything. It kept me occupied and interested for its very, very long two hour length (which felt like three), but the level that it kept me interested on was on the technical, and not the personal. And that just isn't right.

7 viewings of Miller's Crossing recommended instead out of 10

"It's all so fucking hysterical". - The Road to Perdition