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Road to Perdition

Reviewed By Brian McKay
Posted 03/23/03 07:13:55

"On the path to Hell, man is his own worst demon."
5 stars (Awesome)

The Buddhist concept of “Meifumado” is literally “The way of demons and damnation.” It is both a path of one’s own choosing, and the inevitable result of the choices one has already made. In the LONE WOLF AND CUB comics and films, which served as the inspiration for ROAD TO PERDITION, the protagonist and his son forsake the normal world, choosing to live as demons who are fueled only by revenge. In like fashion, hit-man Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) chooses the path that he knows will lead to his own damnation – but perhaps salvation for his son.

For the second time, a Japanese Samurai saga has been reshaped in a western image and set amid the gangland of America’s early Prohibition. The Bruce Willis vehicle Last Man Standing was a dumbing-down of the classic film Yojimbo, eschewing clever storytelling and rich characters in lieu of frequent and mindless (albeit sometimes enjoyable) action sequences. Road to Perdition takes the opposite approach. Although it trades in the Katana for a Tommy Gun, the ultra-violence of the series that inspired it is toned way down in order to focus on the character relationships and struggles with inner demons that gave Lone Wolf and Cub its emotional core.

Michael Sullivan is a loving husband and father of two boys. He is also a cold and methodical enforcer for the Rooney syndicate, led by old man John Rooney (Paul Newman), who has been like a father to Michael. His son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) is a bright and inquisitive 12 year old who likes to read Lone Ranger pulp novels. Although he doesn’t know what his father does for a living, he know the old man carries a loaded .45 to work and doesn’t wear a badge. Letting his curiosity get the best of him, he hides in the back of the old man’s car one night so that he can see how his father earns a living. When Sullivan and Rooney’s unstable, incompetent, and power-hungry son, Connor (Daniel Craig), go to what was supposed to be a quiet meeting with disgruntled syndicate members, it turns into a bloodbath thanks to Connor’s rash actions. The horrified Mike Jr. sees it all, and subsequently, is seen as a liability by the Rooney family. Only the Rooney patriarch resists the idea of the boy being eliminated, but he is powerless to stop Connor from going to the Sullivan home and murdering Michael’s wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and youngest son (mistaking him for Mike Jr.). When the Michaels Sr. and Jr. come home to find their loved ones slain, they hit the road. Michael tells his son “this is no longer our home. It’s just an empty building”. From that point on, all that matters is survival and vengeance.

The Sullivans head for Chicago, hoping to enlist the aid of the Capone organization. Michael has a meeting with Frank Nitti (superbly played by Stanley Tucci), but his offer to work for them in exchange for being allowed a vendetta against Connor Rooney is rejected because it would hurt business arrangements between the two syndicates. Michael and son are on their own, with a Capone family hitman soon on their tail. Maguire (Jude Law) is a sociopath who gets off on photographing corpses as much as he does creating them. He even shows up at random murder scenes with camera in hand, bribing Chicago’s finest so that he can add to his collection. After a failed first attempt, he soon steps up to more desperate tactics.

Knowing that the Capone family is protecting Connor at the old man’s request, Sullivan decides to hit the Capones where it hurts the most until they give Connor up – in the pocketbook. While Ogami Itto and son Daigoro took the odd assassination jobs to fund their campaign of vengeance, Sullivan and son become bank robbers, - hitting only banks that launder Capone money. Just as Itto used Daigoro to provide diversionary tactics for his assassination jobs, Michael uses Mike Jr. as his getaway driver (with some genuinely amusing results). This can only bring even more heat down on the wanted pair, leading to the inexorable confrontation between Michael and John Rooney for the lives of their sons.

Road to Perdition is simply a beautiful film – and my love of the Lone Wolf and Cub source material in no way colors that assessment. While bearing some fundamental similarities in character and plot structure, there are differences aplenty as well. The story stands firmly on its own two feet, and the magnitude of the talent involved in this project can only help propel it into the realm of great cinema. The main difference is that the violence is scarce and never glorified, and the film is that much stronger because of it. It is brooding and introspective, while never feeling ponderous or manipulative. The strength of the performances lies in their subtlety. Father and son often speak volumes with little or no actual conversation. There are no overdrawn or expository speeches, just emotionally powerful scenes that hinge on a facial expression or a few simple words. Hanks in particular has given me a newfound respect. I’ve never disliked anything he’s done, but I never imagined him being so effective in this kind of role either. He is able to express the weight and regrets of a lifetime with a quiet sigh or a hollow stare. In one of my favorite scenes, he is sitting quietly in a small churching, staring off into oblivion as a row of burning candles illuminate his face. It is beautifully reminiscent of the scenes of Ogami Itto (as played by Wakayama Tomisaburo) meditating at a Buddhist shrine over the souls of all the men he has killed. Likewise, Paul Newman vividly captures the look of horror and dismay in the old man’s face, as he realizes that his world is unraveling and all of his sins are finally catching up to him. One of his final lines in the film summarizes the concept of Meifumado beautifully:

“This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.”

Director Sam Mendes has followed American Beauty with another brilliant film. It rings with a quiet but powerful emotional resonance I did not expect, and while the score is strongly reminiscent of that film (sometimes sounding almost note-for-note identical), it adds a whole new dimension to this haunting epic.

Despite moments of subdued humor, the ROAD TO PERDITION is long, arduous, and heartbreaking - and worth every step of the journey.

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