Road to Perdition (2002)

Genres - Crime, Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Crime Drama, Gangster Film, Period Film  |   Release Date - Jul 12, 2002 (USA)  |   Run Time - 117 min.  |   Countries - Germany, United States  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Karl Williams

An elegant, mournful gangster picture that joins the ranks of Miller's Crossing (1990) and The Godfather (1972) as an example of the genre's best, this adaptation of a fact-based graphic novel is another showcase for the visual talents of director Sam Mendes, following up his Oscar-winning cinematic debut, American Beauty (1999). The film's power is due in no small part to a superb script from relatively new screenwriter David Self, who enlarges upon the source material's themes until they've reached Shakespearean proportions, while cleverly touching upon the tale's themes of fathers and sons, coming of age, violence, and damnation. Audiences may have a difficult time grappling with the emotional reserve, itchy trigger finger and ultimate fate of hit man Michael Sullivan, played by one of its favorite, most likable leading men, Tom Hanks, but the fact is that the character rings true to his circumstances and allows the star an opportunity to more freely employ the gruff, flinty toughness, the sharper edges of intelligence, and the irked, tired refusal to suffer fools gladly that are so often lurking just below the surface of his more popular roles (in many ways, Hanks' Sullivan seems to be the black sheep brother of Captain John Miller from 1998's Saving Private Ryan). Despite this, the film's one flaw is that it allows Sullivan so much screen time that not every viewer might realize that he's only a supporting player: the protagonist is not the father but the son, Michael Jr., well played by Tyler Hoechlin as a youth whose future prospects are cloudy at best but become more certain as events unfold. It's his point of view being shared, the ultimate fate of his soul that's at stake, and his character that's being emotionally tracked, but his denouement may feel anticlimactic compared to the father's spectacular, heart-breaking exit. It's a trifling flaw in an otherwise top-notch film that's certain to be reconsidered in later years as the century's first great gangster flick. The cast is terrific (Jude Law--in a role wholly invented for the film--and Paul Newman, in the underappreciated winter of his career, deliver awe-inspiring performances as well), but it's that corker of a script from Self, trenchant and devastating, breath-taking in its ability to ply the screen with elegant visuals followed up with sparkling dialogue and unexpected confrontations, that lights up the screen and the memory.