Everyone on this film is at the top of their game: Sam Mendes' direction is very artful, the acting is superlative, the cinematography by Conrad L. Hall is precise and luminous, and David Self's script is very nicely written to subtly play to the theme of the relationship between fathers and sons. So why is this not a classic? Perhaps because revenge dramas need a really compelling central character, and the morose wronged hitman Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) just isn't up to the larger-than-life standard set by Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, or Russell Crowe as Maximus.
In the depression, hitman Sullivan works for a harsh but fair boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) who treats him as a son. Rooney's real son, Connor, (Daniel Craig) is a psychopath, and an all round embarrassment, and not only knows it, but resents it. Connor slaughters Sullivan's wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and one of his two sons. Sullivan goes on the run with his remaining son, and (wouldn't you know it?) swears revenge.
Based on a graphic novel, this owes a lot to the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub comic and film series, of which the film compendium Shogun Assassin is perhaps the best known. The tale of a renegade Samurai with his infant son, for Perdition hitman replaces samurai, and the boy is aged up to twelve. These changes aside, the story plays out much the same: a lone warrior seeks vengeance, whilst also forced to protect himself and his son from attacks by hired killers.
Despite similarities, the changes in time period and location weaken the story. The samurai is a man of honour, the hit man isn't, and although casting Tom Hanks is calculated to make Sullivan likeable, it doesn't really work, and it would have been better if the film had dared to accept that the hero is not a good man. Although this is admitted in the final showdown, films like Get Carter and Point Blank are stronger for admitting the hero is a low-life upfront. The worst example here comes when Sullivan robs a bank, but supposedly manages to only take mob money, a contrivance that rings very false.
It's weird to see Hanks, the perennial good guy family man, play a killer on a mission of vengeance, and good an actor as he is, he's not good as a hard man. In keeping with the legend of Clint Eastwood, Hanks is often silent, or says only the bare minimum. His adversaries are given to babbling, especially Harlen MacGuire (Jude Law), another hitman sent to kill him, and the film's best adversary. Hanks does deliver in Sullivan's relationship with his son, which he makes warm and convincing. It's easy to believe his mission is truly trigged by his family's slaughter, rather than from the film's desire to show violence.
Despite its weaknesses, Road to Perdition is a good value Hollywood production, not great, not memorable, but very visual, very professional, and very easy to watch. It's a job of work, not inspiration. And if that's acceptable, it won't disappoint. 7/10
Adrian Horrocks (February 2005)
A-Z of Film Reviews