The emergence of superheroes like Spider-Man as box-office champs has almost obscured the realization that some of today's best cinema is being mined from lesser-known comics titles. Last year's "Ghost World," for example, reconfigured the pagework of Daniel Clowes into lovable indie comedy. While utterly dissimilar in tone and content, "Road to Perdition" rides the same underground gravy train to even greater cultural impact.
As interpreted by director/producer Sam Mendes (who proves that his celebrated film debut, "American Beauty," was no fluke), the movie both honors and transcends its origins as a graphic novel by writer Max Allan Collins and artist Richard Piers Rayner. Published in 1998, the comic concerns a Depression-era hit man whose duties as an enforcer for the Irish mob brought tragedy on his family and forced his oldest son to make a life-defining choice between brutality and virtue. Mendes and screenwriter David Self ("Thirteen Days") use that plot as a blueprint for a more intimate, less historically specific examination of the mantle of violence one generation passes down to the next -- and the ability of that succeeding generation to just say no.
Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a quiet man who loves his wife and two children, but owes his allegiance to John Rooney (Paul Newman), the gangster chieftain who raised him. Sullivan's two young boys know little of their dad's line of work, regarding it with the reverent distance with which many children approach a parent's hazily understood "importance." Twelve-year-old Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) pierces the mystery when he witnesses his pop taking part in an underworld mission gone bad. His spying has terrible consequences for the Sullivans, setting in motion a chain of events that turns the two Michaels into fugitives. On the run, Michael Sr. wages a war of revenge against the Rooney family; all the while, his degenerate lifestyle threatens to steal his boy's soul.
Given the visual poetry of "American Beauty," it's no surprise that "Road to Perdition" is a real eyeful. Re-teaming with cinematographer Conrad L. Hall ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"), Mendes trades in simple, declarative setups that are awash in meaning. The camera places us at the head of streets and hallways that stretch outward to the horizon, imparting the anxiety of a fate that remains just out of view. The motif reaches its apotheosis when Sullivan and son drive into old Chicago, an arrival shot with all the ominous perspective of Dorothy's entry into Oz.
The performances are first-rate. As the initially taciturn Sullivan, Hanks employs the face-acting talents he honed in "Cast Away," only to let in rays of his patented warmth as the character opens up. Hoechlin's portrayal of Michael Jr. reinforces Mendes' knack for identifying and cultivating adroit young actors. And what can one say about Newman except that he's a movie star in the finest sense? His Rooney is no monster, just a man whose moral limits are several steps removed from ours. The distinction lends poignance to the character's soul-searching and makes his rages all the more unsettling.
The film has a lone clunking moment, in which it asks us to believe that Sullivan -- whose family is the target of unspeakable savagery -- would leave Michael Jr. unattended in a car. That gaffe is quickly forgotten, though, as Sullivan walks into a confrontation with his pursuer, Maguire (Jude Law), a crime-scene photographer who doubles as an assassin. Grinning through yellowed teeth, his eyebrows arching upward, Law is mesmerizing, the ghoulish antithesis of his suave robo-gigolo in "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence."
The deftness of the film is best appreciated via a reading of the graphic novel, which, for all its visual density, is a series of shoot-outs with moralistic overtones. Self and Mendes reduce the number of violent incidents to make the story more accessible, and some will call that cowardice. But parceling out the gunplay also ensures that the horror of each killing is undiminished. Films that seek to condemn violence often find themselves exploiting it, but "Road to Perdition" avoids that trap. By dealing responsibly in death, it embraces life.
Every era births a movie that captures its uncertain zeitgeist while pointing the way toward release. For the fearful here, and for the bloody now, this is that movie. Not bad for a comic book, eh?