Cinema Signal:

Mob Nemesis: How the FBI Crippled Organized Crime

. "Road to Perdition"

In movies about the mob, the mafia, cosa nostra, gangsterism, etc., the stage is set for the creation of the black hero, a bad guy who you like, love, root for. When Tom Hanks turns his complex humanism behind the character, he can get you to develop a spirit of kinship for such a person that could bother you. How do you get behind an executioner? Yet, you do.

It's the complexity of his character and the magnetic charisma of his presence that fuels this vehicle for an actor who keeps proving his indomitability in the range and depth of the movies he inhabits and the industry he pretty near rules over. And it's no small contribution that the director of "American Beauty", Sam Mendes, guides and paces him, nor that the cast is illumined by comparable talent.

Depression-era Irish mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) has two "sons": his biological one, Connor (Daniel Craig), a weak-minded greedy sociopath if ever there was one, and his adopted one, Michael Sullivan (Hanks), an efficient and totally loyal enforcer with a good mind and hidden depths of feeling. One senses there is a high standard of moral justice in the things he does for his boss, his adoptive parent, who once did so much for him that he's devoted his life to the repayment.

The events revolve around the utter weakness of Irish boss Rooney (Newman) to properly deal with the biological son despite his many betrayals and indulgences. Disaster looms in Connor's every act, which he displays by blowing away an underboss when he was about to reveal certain facts about Connors' extortion for his personal gain. The problem is that Sullivan's 14-year old son Michael, Jr. witnesses the execution and Connor is not about to sweat out the discretion of a kid -- even if he is Michael "The Angel of Death" Sullivan's.

But Connor does have a sense of the dangers involved in snuffing out Sullivan's boy and takes measures to secure Sullivan's own worldly departure at the hand of a local hoodlum who owes a lot of money to the mob. Only Sullivan is far to fast for that, and discovers Connor's treachery and the risk to his family.

Sullivan's moves on behalf of protecting his family and bringing his adversary to justice, either the world's or the mobs, alter the pattern of his life and his convictions. The change in his values become more pronounced when he sees that even written evidence of Connor's betrayal to the mob is not enough to secure justice from the man who can furnish it. In the face of written records of Connor's personal shakedowns Rooney simply declares that he's known about it and can't or won't do anything about it. He's an old man, a tired mob boss, and he can't face what would normally be expected of him.

Sullivan relentlessly pursues his own justice and his personal form of defense against the criminal forces now arrayed against him and his family. He is forced to break out of his brooding intensity enough to discover his role as father, all the while playing the revenge and justice game within the etiquette of mob rule. He is not a reformed man; he is an altered man, with convictions molded out of loss and suffering that hits him where he never thought himself vulnerable.

Jude Law distinguishes himself as the arch hit man Harlen Maguire, hired by no less than Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), a boss just below the level of Al Capone, to take Sullivan out. His uniqueness in the role is characteristic of this highly creative actor who did likewise as Gigolo Joe in last year's AI and as Herbert "Dickie" Greenleaf in 1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley". This is an actor who just won't do a role without, in some way, distinguishing it.

Tom Hanks, the mob hit man The fine cast is further assisted by 14-year old Tyler Hoechlin as Sullivan's 14-year old son. With the pacing and sensibilities of a pro, he adeptly portrays a son's absolute deference to and love for a father, conveying the awe and silent respect in this difficult relationship. Paul Newman likewise plays to his strengths as the elder statesman mob boss too weakened by age and restrained by the tie of blood to deal with the betrayals of an out-of-control son. He will, instead, suffer the consequences of the choices he has made. The story is, in large part, that of parallel father and son relationships: the Rooneys and the Sullivans.

As good as those casting choices are, Stanley Tucci, an actor with unarguable achievements, is a misfire. Playing Frank Nitti, one of the most feared gang leaders of the period, Tucci seems so lightweight he could be mistaken for an imposter sitting in the big man's chair. There's no connection whatever to a guy who is supposed to be running things in Chicago. Instead, Tucci comes off as -- not the puppetmaster -- one of the puppets.

Ace cinematographer Conrad Hall, who joins up with director Sam Mendes after their collaboration on "American Beauty" here adds another wrinkle to a distinguished list of photographic stylishness. The story and its characters move within shadows and in the merciless beams of stark light, artfully enhancing the shifting moods and emotions. Nice, even if it is a bit story-boardish, remindful of the "graphic novel" written by Max Allan Collins and illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner, on which it's based.

In the annals of movies about the mob, this one stands out for the modulated complexity of a professional killer not typical of the sociopathic stereotype. Though the bipolarity of the man's nature may be seen as less than credible, Hank's own completeness will convince some of us that such a ruthless character in the context of mob demands can also embody the essential qualities of the rest of humanity. Though not everyone will be convinced, he pulls off the conflicting impulses as well as anyone could and perhaps better than anybody, and no one should be surprised if the portrayal winds up as one of this year's academy award nominations. Being merely July, we won't start talking about oscars.

And, while some have carped about the story, written by David Self, and the over-stylishness of the Sam Mendes' palette, it's a film that shouldn't (and won't) be ignored.

The bottom line is that it's a film attempting to break new ground in taking a familiar subject and expanding its canvas of possibilities. The result may have some flaws but the artists involved may be commended for creating something that's provocative enough to linger in the thoughts of the cinematically disposed mind.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Mob executioner Tom Hanks and son Tyler Hoechlin on the road
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