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Paved with bad intentions

Movies

Issue: "Sex, lies, & audiotape," July 27, 2002

Road to Perdition arrived in theaters last week with an impeccable pedigree. Behind the camera: Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes and Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. In front of the camera, lead performances by two of Hollywood's biggest stars: Tom Hanks and Paul Newman.

The result of this high-powered collaboration is often forceful but also more than a little disappointing. Mr. Hanks and Mr. Newman portray 1930s gangsters in an unnamed American town. Mr. Hanks is Michael Sullivan, a hit man fiercely devoted to Mr. Newman's John Rooney, a powerful mob boss. Rooney raised Sullivan, without parents of his own, from the time he was a boy.

Sullivan is now married with two young sons, but he is an emotionally distant husband and father. Rooney is not without blood children of his own, but Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig), his only son, is a hothead and an embarrassment. Clearly, it would seem, the elder Rooney's affections lie with Sullivan.

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These bonds are tested when Sullivan's elder son, Michael Jr., witnesses a murder in which both Sullivan and Connor participate. Connor, jealous of Sullivan's standing with his father, decides the boy won't be able to keep the secret, and makes a murderous trip to the Sullivan home.

This sets in motion a chain of events that throw the two Michaels together as they flee an assassin and seek a new home. For the first time, they begin to know and understand each other, within the confines of what becomes a six-week road trip.

Road to Perdition (rated R for violence and bad language-and the violence is sometimes extreme) is a harsh, dark film-literally and figuratively. The action is beautifully photographed by Mr. Hall, each shot composed with the utmost care. Much of the film is drenched in rain, with the scenes that aren't contrasting superbly. Although the look of the film is stylized, with a few exceptions, it doesn't slip into a Dick Tracy sort of shadowy cartoonishness.

The film's central theme is the complex bond between fathers and sons, and there are compelling scenes, particularly between Mr. Hanks and Mr. Newman, both of whom are outstanding. As is often the case, however, Road to Perdition has much more to say-much more convincingly-about evil than it does about good.

We see the devastating consequences of a life given over to evil, as the sins of fathers are passed from generation to generation. But what little redemption there is to be found here is weightless compared to the rest of the film. This, combined with shifts in tone that sometimes detract from the story, make Road to Perdition an intriguing but less than satisfying trip.

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