Road to Perdition (DVD, 2003, DTS Widescreen) Reviews
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Road to Perdition (DVD, 2003, DTS Widescreen)

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Tom Hanks. Check. Great Direction. Check. Story. Oops. 'Road To Perdition'

Feb 12, 2003
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Hanks. Law. A treat to watch something very well crafted.

Cons:There's no there there.

The Bottom Line: It thinks it is mixing the black of great acting and direction into the white of story, and it will thus turn the whole black. Unfortunately, it's the other way.




Sam Mendes is two for two with me. While I liked ‘American Beauty’ much more than this one, at the end I had a vague ‘Yeah... And?’ reaction. At the end of ‘The Road to Perdition’, I had a similar reaction, only it was very distinct.

‘Road to Perdition’ is nothing if not a simply gorgeous movie. Whatever Mendes may lack as a storyteller (or story with a point teller), he more than makes up for in his technical abilities as a director. There are more nearly perfect scenes in this movie than in anything in recent years, save perhaps only ‘Gosford Park’. But, ‘simply gorgeous’, despite accepted theories on the subject, does not equal good.

We are introduced to the movie by a young man who tells us that, basically, Michael Sullivan might not have been all that bad. Past tense duly noted, it won’t be a surprise (or especially interesting) when Michael Sullivan dies. We move back in time to a point where we can see Michael Sullivan alive and kicking, in less ways than one, and learn that he works for the mob. Specifically, he works for Mr. Rooney (Paul Newman). Mr. Rooney, it seems, took Michael in at an early age, and Michael has since become like a second son to him.

Things become interesting when one of Michael’s sons stows away in the back of the car as Michael sets off to ‘work’. As we can easily guess from the movie’s introduction (even if we hadn’t seen the trailers), said son sees more than is good for him, and the trouble begins brewing.

The movie then takes off, and we are launched into the world of mob relations, and relations, with a particular look at fathers and sons, loyalty and betrayal. Michael Sullivan and son go from running, to chasing, to not-exactly-running-but-not-exactly-not-running. We delve a bit into the ‘theories’ at work in the mob, and the ‘theories’ at work in the minds of people who are being hunted. We look at how those ‘theories’ sort of play together, and we look at what happens when one of those ‘theories’ doesn’t want to play anymore, and picks up its ball and goes home.

Unfortunately, we’ve really seen all this before. We know all about the mob boss with the nogoodnik (the mob-specific use of the word, I suppose) son, and the conflicting ideas of family and ‘family’ that causes. We’ve seen people in the mob who find themselves on the business end of the mob, as it were. We’ve seen the middle-aged man in the mob who wants his son to do anything but follow in his footsteps. We’ve seen the ‘bad seed’ (whatever that could mean) member of the mob who throws a monkey-wrench in the whole operation and threatens to tear the whole thing down from within.

The real stopping power of the film comes from the fact that it’s actually worse for being better. I’m reminded of (and the producers never thought anyone would say this) ‘Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever’. ‘Ballistic’ isn’t any worse than the thousands of other B-movies where things blow up for no reason, and there isn’t any ‘real’ plot. Not especially anyway. The reason ‘Ballistic’ is so bad is that it keeps trying to tell us that it’s something actually good. At least ‘Ballistic’ does it in such a way that we can never take it seriously.

By the same token, ‘Road to Perdition’ isn’t actually any worse than any of the dozen mob films taking place in the thirties (or at any other time) we could pick that are pretty well the same movie, except that ‘Road to Perdition’ spends the first hour telling us it’s going to be something great. Worse, we believe it. It’s almost impossible to avoid believing it, the first part of the movie is that good. For the first hour, the movie gives us everything we could want. Tom Hanks is at his best. Jude Law is excellent as (almost) per usual, though he is somewhat wasted (He’s more interesting than most parts of the film, and in it less). We have several characters that we can ‘get into’ to a surprising degree for a mobster film that doesn’t have ‘Godfather’ in the title. The period aspect of the film is outstanding. The scenes are crafted masterfully. The only real flaw with the first part of the movie is that occasionally the soundtrack is trying to create the mood rather than follow it.

When the movie then turns out to really have nothing special, or new in its story, that’s a major letdown.

It makes its statements about trust, fatherhood (even sonhood, I suppose), life, etc., but that doesn’t save ‘Ballistic’, and it doesn’t save ‘Road to Perdition’. It doesn’t save it, because not only is it giving us a look at statements we’ve heard before (not necessarily a problem), it does it thinking it invented the ideas (definitely a problem).

We know how it ends from the beginning. It isn’t even remotely difficult to discern exactly how it’s going to end. Taking what we’ve learned in the first hour, we apply it to the formula we are extremely familiar with, and for the rest of the movie we know every step the movie will take. Sure, it’s the same old thing done much better, but so what?

The strangest part of the movie, though certainly not the worst part, is the title itself. No one is on the road to hell because of any good intentions, so what’s the point there? It seems it might as well be called ‘Lemonade’ for all the meaning we get out of it, because that seems more where we’re going toward a point. It’s more about life not being anything we asked for, and giving you a tough hand, and making the best of what you’ve got to work with, than any good intentions anyone has.


It sucks you in like few movies can, but then it doesn’t know what to do with you. In my heart of hearts, I think it’s closer to two stars just because overall it is actually of so little value. At the same time, however, I feel like it deserves an extra star just for how well done, in so many ways, the first hour is. At this point (having seen the whole thing), I have to distance myself from the film greatly in order to appreciate it in that sense, but it’s there somewhere. If you were to watch the first hour and stop, it’d definitely be worth the extra star.

I still don't recommend it though. It's that much of a disappointment.


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