Sam Mendes won an Oscar and Golden Globe as director of American Beauty. He established his reputation as a British stage director though, responsible for Little Voice (later made into a film), The Blue Room and Cabaret, among many productions. Mendes certainly doesn’t lack confidence and has successfully charmed the likes of Spielberg into giving him films with big stars and budgets to match. The latest example of this trust, Road To Perdition, features Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, has already garnered a nomination for the Golden Lion at Venice and is being touted as film of the year.

Tom Hanks, who, like Robin Williams, appears desperate to break away from his usual type, is cast as a baby-faced hit-man in Road To Perdition, a sort of cross between a mob mayhem film and a philosophical exploration of the relationship between good and evil, between fathers and sons and revenge and redemption. Sounds unusual? Well, Mendes says he wanted to put a different spin on Chicago in 1931 and make a picture in the grand tradition of old Hollywood, rather than just another movie. Mendes selected the graphic novel written by Max Allen Collins and illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner as the vehicle for his project. Collins’s novel deals with the exploits of the Looneys, real gangsters of the time.

Veteran cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who shot American Beauty as well as many classics including Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, describes the film as soft noir. Now that’s a concept, but then again, Hanks does have a baby face and you just can’t imagine him being that bad even if he’s supposed to be a hit-man.

In many ways Road To Perdition is a relatively classy, if predictable, mob tale. It is beautifully shot and there are some outstanding performances, particularly from Jude Law who plays a ferret-like photographer-cum-hired killer. Truly creepy. Newman is still commanding at 77 and Hanks more or less pulls off the emotionally shut down father. Newcomer Tyler Hoechlin is convincing as the son.

Mendes has paid great attention to period detail, which is generally excellent except for some major slip-ups such as the Hoechlin character reading The Lone Ranger when it wasn’t published until the late 1930s. The problem is Road To Perdition has a very airless feel to it and little emotional resonance. There is something odd about the film in its very earnest attempt to be authentic and great. Still, this is entertainment of a type rarely seen these days from Hollywood, a story trying to deal with philosophical issues even if it is more than a little bit rosy and boys-own in the end.

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