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By Rick Kisonak | July 15, 2002

I’m not sure Sam Mendes’ latest is a masterpiece as so many critics are exclaiming but it is very probably the most artful and earnest drama ever adapted from a comic book.
Sorry- graphic novel. Though I can’t say I completely understand the difference. Ghost World ‘s credits say it’s based on a comic book. “Road to Perdition” ‘s allude to a graphic novel. Maybe the choice says something about a director’s level of self-seriousness.
Mendes sure is in a serious mood here. Tom Hanks is a grim Depression-era button man who works for an Irish gangster played by Paul Newman. The film’s characters are defined with only the quickest of strokes. All the audience is told about Newman is that he’s a ruthless, much feared crime boss who comports himself in the manner of a sentimental grandfather when he’s not putting contracts out on enemies. All we’re told about Hanks is that he’s the boss’ loyal right hand man, a basically decent Catholic guy who only got mixed up in Murder Inc. because, well, it’s the Depression and the old guy offered a way to put a roof over the heads of his wife and two sons. I guess we’re not supposed to notice that everyone else in town somehow manages to put food on the table without resorting to putting people in the ground.
That’s just one of the story’s several holes. Here comes the big one: ^ Hanks’s two boys get to wondering exactly what it is that Dad does when he goes on “missions” for kindly old Mr. Rooney. The older son hides in the back of the car when Hanks goes to work one night in the company of Rooney’s quick-tempered semi-psycho son (Daniel Craig). Their assignment is to patch things up with a business associate whose brother they’ve recently found it necessary to rub out but Rooney Jr. blows the guy’s head off instead forcing Hanks to mow down a couple of his buddies with a Tommy gun. The son sees the whole thing and that sets in motion a series of events which changes father and son’s lives forever.
I don’t want to give away too much. Suffice to say the question is raised as to what should be done about the kid given what he witnessed. Newman has one view on the subject. His son has a less forgiving one. The next thing you know, brothers in arms are stabbing each other in the back, lifelong loyalties are being abandoned and all perdition breaks loose.
And why? Because the boy might tell somebody that Newman & Co. are criminals. Hell, they only run the entire town. Rooney isn’t feared and treated so deferentially because the local populace thinks he’s such a neat guy. Everybody already knows he’s a crime boss.
Luckily the movie as a whole isn’t as iffy as its premise. As glorified comic books go, it has a great deal to recommend it. The direction is never less than stylish, the cinematography courtesy of Conrad L. Hall is ravishing, Newman and Hanks both bring to their performances a gravitas I don’t believe either has achieved elsewhere in his work and, as the son who goes on the run with his father, 12 year old Tyler Hoechlin does a convincing job. Stanley Tucci and Jude Law make the most of smaller roles too.
The second half of the picture is predictable and thin. Father and son get to know one another in ways they hadn’t before they were forced to take to the road and Law, as a hitman hired to take out Tom, closes in on his prey. The movie is more than watchable but less than truly memorable. The bottom line is you’ve got a graphic novel as a starting point here and not a book with the depth and scope of, say, The Godfather. As well-acted and good-looking as it is, its script is underwritten and its characters are underdeveloped.
As a series of artfully composed images and universal emotional cues, “Road to Perdition” is fairly effective. At the same time, this isn’t a road anyone should head down expecting to find a fully fleshed-out film.

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