If Steven Spielberg had made The Godfather it might have turned out like Road to Perdition, which instantly becomes the front-runner for year-end honors as of July 12. As praiseworthy as that is, it's also a source of annoyance because the film appears so calculated as an award magnet. You can imagine director Sam Mendes, writer David Self, stars Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, and composer Thomas Newman looking around their houses to decide where to put their new Oscars.
Hanks' impeccable performance as Michael Sullivan can't help putting a certain spin on the picture, making it warmer and fuzzier than it might be with another leading man. Before we even see him, his 12-year-old son, Mike Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) tells us, "Some say he was a decent man. Some say there was no good in him at all." Knowing he's talking about Hanks, do you want to place your bet?
Most of the story takes place during a six-week period in the winter of 1931. The Sullivans are a happy family, with Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) taking care of their middle-class house, Mike Jr., and his younger brother Peter (Liam Aiken). Imagine Ozzie and Harriet if we'd learned the mysterious job Ozzie went off to every day was as an enforcer for the mob. Hey, crime is the only industry that's Depression-proof.
Dad doesn't talk much to his sons. He casually keeps his gun out of the boys' sight, just as Junior hides the pipe he smokes from his father. Peter's getting old enough to wonder what daddy does for a living, and Mike Jr.'s old enough to conceal what little he knows from his brother. But Junior is also curious, and one night he stows away in the car and witnesses a killing. Sullivan helps clean up, but it's Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) who starts the shooting, ignoring their orders merely to talk to their victim.
Connor is the bad seed of Michael's surrogate father, John Rooney (Newman), his godfather in every sense of the word. There's a sibling rivalry between them because John (with good reason) has always liked Michael better. It will be difficult when the old man has to choose between them.
A sudden act of violence forces Michael to take his older son on the road to Perdition, where an aunt lives. They stop in Chicago to solicit the help of Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), the only real person in the story besides the unseen Al Capone. An amazing amount of present-day Chicago is usable for backgrounds, with 70 years' worth of modernizing digitally removed.
A sequence involving a series of bank robberies is somewhat farfetched but helps move the story along, sometimes in surprising directions, as Michaels Senior and Junior get to know each other while they're tossed about by forces, some of which are beyond their control.
Newman rides his role as if it were a race car. In his first scene he stretches out his arms and asks, "Who's got a hug for a lonely old man?" Doubtless many in the audience will be moved to respond. Jude Law, solidifying his status as the Malcolm McDowell of the new millennium, plays a character who's just a little too weird for this movie: a press photographer who specializes in murder scenes. In order to get his pictures he's not above using a gun as well as a camera. Shooting is shooting, don't you know?
Designed to be an instant classic, Road to Perdition achieves that end. It's likely to stand the test of time, but whether it will be trumped before the end of the year is anyone's guess. Even as you read this, Martin Scorsese is sitting in his room chanting, "My gangsters can beat your gangsters."