Road to Perdition: In Capone’s Shadow

PRAY FOR MICHAEL SULLIVAN. 

roadtoperditionThere’s a deleted scene in this film where John Rooney (Paul Newman), a local Illinois mob boss, meets with the legendary Al Capone and his closest associate, Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci). Capone is played by Anthony LaPaglia, a very capable actor. In the end, though, director Sam Mendes decided to leave Capone on the cutting-room floor. Not only was the scene obviously superfluous, but this larger-than-life mobster might have stolen too much attention from the central story.

As it is now, Capone remains an invisible but undeniable force, someone both Rooney and the film’s leading protagonist must take into account as they clash. Rarely has Capone been more intimidating.

In the early 1930s, aging mobster John Rooney is running the city of Rock Island, Illinois, aided by his enforcers Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig). The latter is John’s unstable son, the former his much-respected and very reliable adopted son. Michael is married and has two boys. On a rainy night, the oldest of them, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), hides in his dad’s car and becomes a reluctant witness to a mob killing, realizing for the first time exactly what kind of work his father does for friendly uncle John. Michael finds out that his son saw what happened and tells him never to say anything to anyone. Unfortunately, Connor is also there and decides that this is his chance to get rid of his father’s “favorite son”…

Touch of Greek tragedy
After winning the Best Directing Oscar for American Beauty (1999), Englishman Sam Mendes continued to explore what might be considered arch-American sentiments. The story is classic, pitting a good guy with a dirty job against the man who raised him as his father, and amping up tension by introducing a quaint hired killer, a deadly man who also makes a living taking pictures of dead bodies. Jude Law is appropriately creepy in that part, a different kind of psychopath from Craig’s Connor who is dangerous but has no brains.

Newman and Hanks both play their characters as essentially decent men in spite of their line of work, which is the right approach. There’s a touch of Greek or Shakespearian tragedy to their relationship; Newman’s paternal style becomes even more moving knowing this was his last major performance onscreen, and Hanks works his everyday charm, adding some gravitas needed for the character. After all, this is also a drama about the kind of roles fathers play in our lives. Young Michael looks up to his dad, and finding out what he does for a living and later on accepting it and helping him is quite a journey. The same goes for Michael Sr. who has to declare war on his adoptive father because John can’t renounce the evils of his other son. Screenwriter David Self makes this part of the film count as much as the action.

Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (working on his last movie) finds nuances in the warmth of the Sullivan kitchen and the cold of dark, rainy alleys where Rooney’s empire is both strengthened and weakened. Handsome and exciting, the film also benefits from Thomas Newman’s music score blending traditional sweeping orchestrations with his signature experimental style that made his work on American Beauty memorable.

One last word on Tucci. He agreed to play Frank Nitti in spite of hating how Italian-Americans have always been represented in Hollywood. He found the right balance here, painting Nitti as a clever and powerful guardian of Capone’s interests. The big man is never seen, but the impressive man protecting him gives us an idea of Capone’s standing.

Road to Perdition 2002-U.S. 117 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Sam Mendes, Dean Zanuck, Richard D. Zanuck. Directed by Sam Mendes. Screenplay: David Self. Graphic Novel: Max Allan Collins, Richard Piers Rayner. CinematographyConrad L. Hall. Music: Thomas Newman. Production Design: Dennis Gassner. Cast: Tom Hanks (Michael Sullivan), Paul Newman (John Rooney), Jude Law (Harlen Maguire), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Stanley Tucci, Daniel Craig… Tyler Hoechlin, Dylan Baker, Ciarán Hinds.

Oscar: Best Cinematography. BAFTA: Best Cinematography, Production Design.

Quote: “There are only murderers in this room! Michael! Open your eyes! This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.” (Newman to Hanks)

Last word: “In a way I avoided the obvious ones for a while. I didn’t watch ‘The Godfather’, possibly because, as I’m sure you could, I could recount the whole movie. I watched a lot of those 30s and 40s gangster movies that I’ve never seen, I re-watched ‘Public Enemy’ and ‘Scarface’, the obvious ones, but I had never seen ‘White Heat’. I watched ‘Paper Moon’ again, I watched some of the iconic, what I would call pulp art-house movies like ‘Once Upon A Time In America’, ‘Giant’ and ‘East Of Eden’, those were the films that I thought it had a lot in common with in terms of its familial basis. And Kurosawa obviously. I just watch a lot, because things pop into your head and you invent as you’re watching.” (Mendes, Empire)

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