The Reel Thing/Tommy Guns:Hanks Has Killer Instinct in “Road to Perdition”

by Louie Grande

Will audiences accept Tom Hanks as a killer? That was the question posed prior to the opening of period gangster drama, "Road to Perdition", in which Hanks portrays a Chicago-mob hitman.

The answer, in short, is yes.

This is mainly for two reasons. A. Because when introduced to Hanks’ character, Michael Sullivan, it is in such a way that we are not witness to the supposed countless acts of brutality that have defined his gruesome career up to this point. And, B., this introduction comes only frames before Sullivan is wronged by some very bad men, and the killings that follow are perpetrated with the sole motivations of protecting his family - and exacting vengeance.

Oh, wait... There’s a third reason. And that is, C. Because he’s Tom Hanks. We’d watch this two-time Oscar-winner portray a can of Campbell’s soup, and collectively say, “Now that’s acting.”

Based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, "Perdition" - Director Sam Mendes’ sophomore follow-up to his Academy Award-winning "American Beauty" - tells the story of Michael Sullivan, husband and father of two young boys, Peter and Michael Jr. in Depression era Chicago. He also happens to be a hired gun for a Irish mob-boss John Rooney, played by aging icon Paul Newman ("Nobody’s Fool", "The Hustler").

Subdued and distant at home, Sullivan’s boys have no idea what their dad does for a living, only that he “loves Mr. Rooney,” a surrogate father figure who gave him a job, a nice home, and helped him to provide for his family.

For John Rooney, the relationship he has with Michael Sr. is that of a father for a beloved son, even more so than his own flesh and blood progeny, Connor (Daniel Craig), a twisted monster of a man, mad with jealousy for a bond he has never known.

Spurred by curiosity, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) stowaways in the back of the Rooney company-car one night when his father and Connor are sent on a mission to talk down an angered associate. “Just talk,” orders Rooney. “Nothing more.”

When the trigger-happy Connor, tired of talk, murders the associate - Sullivan, out of self-defense - guns down the victim’s henchmen, only to afterwards find Michael Jr. curled up outside in the pouring rain, having witnessed everything from a hole in the warehouse walls.

“Can he keep a secret?” asks Connor.

“He’s my son,” replies Sullivan.

Of course, for Connor - witnesses must be silenced. Bound by familial loyalty, Rooney remorsefully turns on his adopted son, in order to protect his own kin. With the mob gunning for his boy, Sullivan the killer becomes Sullivan the protector, and father and son take to the road, heading for resolution in a town named Perdition.

"Perdition" is at times heartbreaking, at others simply true, a constant reflection on the relationship between fathers and sons, sons and their fathers - the differences, the similarities, and the legacies that result.

It is an aesthetically beautiful film. Whether the dark and dreary, rain-drenched Chicago streets and alleyways, evoking B&W graphic novel pulp noir or the scenic rural vistas of 1931, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall makes even some of the most ugly aspects of humanity eye-appealing, and the most beautiful even more so.

With a seasoned cast headlined by both Hanks and Newman, the acting is superb, including appearances by Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The versatile Jude Law ("Enemy at the Gates", "A.I."), yet again makes a surprising and captivating turn, here as a grimy assassin named Maguire - dispatched to silence the Sullivans - who doubles as a crime scene photographer, often the cause of death for many of his disturbing subjects.

Written by David Self, the film isn’t incredibly dialogue heavy, but what is said is executed perfectly.

“This is the life we chose,” barks Rooney in one of his final confrontations with his excommunicated favorite son. “...And one thing can be assured - none of us will see Heaven.”

Sullivan’s reply is that of a father wanting something infinately better for his son.

“Michael could.”

The "Road to Perdition" is an emotional one, but it’s worth the trip.

"Road to Perdition" is rated R for scenes of intense violence and language.