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Friday, July 26, 2002

Keith Keener's

Positive Movie Reviews

The Road to Perdition

I have always been troubled by gangster movies. Too often, they feature oodles of violence and the gangsters themselves make wisecracks constantly. You know, ha ha, violence and mayhem are laughing matters. What about the children, I say, the thousands of children murdered every year by America's gangsters, and the millions more orphaned? Who speaks for them, besides me? I think the only person who should be allowed to tell a joke while killing someone is James Bond, and that is only because he is our best weapon in the War on Terror.

As if the action and the jokes weren't enough, American gangster movies have been unfortunately focused on Italian-Americans. Yes, yes, I know that most criminals are Italian. But it's bad enough that that's true, without me having to watch them and their garlicky kind on screen.

Thankfully, The Road to Perdition is a magnificent new gangster film that does it all, and does it all right. Focusing on Irish gangsters (not ideal, but certainly an improvement) in Illinois in the 1930s, this movie shows that a gangster story can be told with the slow, deliberate pacing and joke-free screenplay that it deserves. This is a sad, mournful, and gentle gangster movie that knows that violence and brutality may be of interest to some young hot-rodders, but NPR listeners like myself would rather enjoy some calm conversations about how bad violence and brutality are.

In The Road to Perdition, America's Best Actor Ever, Tom Hanks, plays Sam McGilligan, a morally troubled hitman. In a performance that rivals that of Mark "Wahlie Wahl and the Funky Marky Bunch" Wahlberg in The Big Hit, Hanks shows that even nice guys can be killers, though they probably won't be proud of their job. The film opens at a funeral at the crime lord's house, and Tom Hanks even refuses to brag about his "Employee of the Month" award, given to him for having killed a corrupt priest and for leaving a bullet-saving efficiency tip in the crimelord's suggestion box. Also, this funeral sets a pace that is so carefully and thoughtfully calculated that it actually moved like clockwork, which I can tell you because I was actually looking at my watch through almost all of the movie.

Hanks works for Podraig O'Shaughnessey Flaherty (Paul Newman), a gangster who has struggled for years to keep his Irishness a secret. In a wacky twist of fate perhaps the most creative since the brilliant John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John movie Twist of Fate Hanks's son stows away in his father's car when Hanks joins Newman's emotionally unstable son to just "go talk to" their colleague. The conversation comes off without a hitch, except for the part when they have to fire hundreds of bullets into the colleague's body and those of his henchman. Suddenly, McGilligan's son Liam (Li'l Bow Wow, in a surprising performance) is a witness to a murder, meaning that Newman's gangster friends have to kill his family and turn Hanks into an enemy.

Unlike most gangster films which are so simplistic that you would think they are based on comic books or something, The Road to Perdition is subtle and original. We know that Hanks is on a quest for revenge and that he wants to protect his son from the mistakes he has made only because Hanks says so repeatedly in the dozens of conversations he ends up in. Fortunately, the other gangsters, even Frank Nitti (who, I suspect, is Italian), turn out to be just as good as he is at conversation. In a screenplay by David Self (who wrote the extraordinary Seventeen Days, about Kennedy and the Li'l Cuban Boy Crisis),The Road to Perdition manages to explain patiently to the audience why everyone is acting the way they are, and why violence is bad. I wish that there had been an anti-sex or at least anti-homosexuality message, but you can't have everything.

When Sam Mendes directed his last film, American Beauty, I argued at the time that it was certainly the greatest satire of the century. It deservedly won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, joining such classics as Memoirs of a Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind, not to mention Hanks's stupendous Forrest Gump. In fact, Hanks was so convincing in Forrest Gump and in every interview I've ever seen him give, that I thought he actually was developmentally disabled. But it turns out, it was all an act!!

Anyway, given that this is only Sam Mendes's second movie, it may be too early to say that there's a "Mendes style." I think the most important links between the two are the generous use of that form of cinematic magic known as the "voice-over," and also the way that the reassuring messages. Sometimes at the end of a movie, especially a confusing one like "Mulholland Drive" or Tomb Raider, I'm left thinking, "OK, but what did the director want me to get out of this experience?" Fortunately, with Sam Mendes, that's never a problem; the closing narration usually explains things carefully, as do the other filmgoers, who dab their eyes on the way out, saying, "It was so beautiful, the way he loved his son." And more important is the fact that Mendes's messages make me feel good. Like in American Beauty, it was that freedom is important, even in the suburbs. In The Road to Perdition, it's more like "Fathers and sons need to love one another. And don't shoot anyone." Which, when you think about it, is a really positive thing to tell people.

With The Road to Perdition, fans of Prairie Home Companion finally have a gangster film they can love and truly call their own. Mark my words: the Oscar race has begun with this rattling good yarn, and the race runs all the way down the Road to Perdition, which is also the name of the movie.

On a scale of four or five stars, I give The Road to Perdition five stars, plus the customary Sam Mendes 100-star bonus, so 105 stars.

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Earlier Positive Movie Reviews can be found at home.earthlink.net/~dleheny