Road to Perdition does not cut through cute Gump Forest

By Mark Torma

What would Hollywood do without Tom Hanks? Without him, the acting establishment might forget to actually act once in a while. While a poseur like Tom Cruise is supposedly “taking chances with his career” by taking a small step to the right (that’s the direction of the Dark Side) in “edgy” roles in Eyes Wide Shut and Vanilla Sky, Tom Hanks is running all the way to the edge of morality in roles like the one he has in Road to Perdition. Long live bad King Tom!

O.K., I overstate things a bit. No rational human will ever confuse Hanks’s Mike Sullivan with the Devil incarnate (not even the rational fundamentalist Christians, few that there are), so it’s a bit early to begin hailing that character as the genuine return of the anti-hero. But after I left the theater, admiring if not fawning over Perdition, I reflected that, for the first time in a long time, I had just seen an American actor convincingly play against a persona so long entrenched in our minds – in this case, Tom the kind, civic-minded Everyman. Recently (or not so recently, since I realize that I’m thinking about the last ten years or so), all of our “giants” of the screen have been recycling personas that seemed to click with the audience, that stayed in the popular imagination, even if the movies that inspired these personas were truly sub-par. Notable culprits include Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and Jack Nicholson, not to mention most of the comedians working in Hollywood these days. Even Denzel Washington, who deserves at least a little respect for a truly edgy part in Training Day, hasn’t pulled off a role worthy of his range since before Glory. Please, please, PLEASE see Cry Freedom, Mississippi Masala, and The Mighty Quinn – you will then realize that Denzel is capable of a whole lot more than Malcolm X and crusading (or corrupt) cops.

But you wanted to hear more about Road to Perdition, didn’t you? Well, let me go on to the inspiration for this rant: the other A-list star in the cast, Paul Newman. The original American anti-hero, and a hell of an improvement over Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless or Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde. Again, please, please, PLEASE see The Hustler, Hud, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – aw, hell, just watch anything he was in between 1957 and 1982. Sheer confusion and emotional torture (do I sympathize with the guy or not?) – that’s what Paul Newman meant to moviegoers for a very long time. And I’m pleased to say, he’s at it again in Perdition, although I admit, the ambiguity does not pervade this role like many before. To expand upon this point, why don’t I talk about the story a little? That would help, I’m sure. A brief synopsis:

Hanks is a family man who just happens to be a hit man in the employ of Newman, the local mob boss who runs his Irish Catholic community like a toy train set. Human weakness gets the better of several characters, and before you know it, Hanks is on the run with his twelve-year-old son, who has just recently realized what his father does for a living. Newman is also a father – his son is the weak sumbitch that sends Hanks to the hills, vowing revenge.

For what, you say? I won’t tell – primarily because there are plenty of reviews out there that beat to death the first third of this movie, and blatantly neglect the second third. Which is interesting – that second third is what really won me over. The middle act is the first part of the movie that demands more out of the actors, and it is also the first time the story leaves the realm of predictability. Most endearing to an old softie like me, however, is the beginning of the father-son relationships. Hanks and Tyler Hoechlin, who plays his son, have the movie’s best scenes; to give them away would ruin some of the film’s biggest surprises and greatest pleasures, so I’ll stay mum. Newman, on the other hand, reveals the depths of his character’s pathos in his scenes with his son. That relationship could have been developed a bit more, but I admit, it’s possible that there couldn’t have been much of a relationship there in the first place.

I shouldn’t forget to mention Jude Law, whose radical departure from his previous golden boy roles makes Hanks look like a piker. As Maguire, a crooked crime photographer, Law is decrepit and despicable, yet still possesses a panache that no actor has wielded so effortlessly since Cary Grant roamed the earth. Which brings me to another point: why are our American gangster roles being taken more and more frequently by the Brits? I can’t say I mind; from Ben Kingsley in Bugsy, to Law, to Daniel Day-Lewis in Scorsese’s upcoming The Gangs of New York, none but the best British actors are being cast. But it is a little disturbing that American actors, if they aren’t Italian and don’t already have the Mafia parts cornered, can’t pull off a more convincing goon or gangland chieftain than can veterans of the Old Vic.

Perhaps my astonishment at the Brits’ overrepresentation is due to a certain cinematic myopia: before The Godfather thirty years ago, Hollywood made at least fifty years worth of movies in which American gangsters were predominantly Irish; very few Italian characters were anywhere to be found. Perhaps, then, it’s only natural (if truly ironic) that with a return to non-Italian, mostly Irish gangster stories, the Brits have made significant inroads into the American crime drama.

Which brings me back to Tom Hanks. He’s no Jude Law, and he’s certainly no Paul Newman, but he holds his own – yes, he does – and if he wants to play another morally compromised character, I will be right there watching. As for this particular part, Hanks will probably receive yet another Oscar nomination, undoubtedly elbowing out some other very worthy candidate, but I will grudgingly have to confess that he deserves it, as he has deserved every other nomination that came his way EXCEPT for that movie where be played that stupid guy who liked to run.

Now, if only Sean Penn could quit acting like Tom Hanks and go back to acting like Sean Penn