Dir: Sam Mendes. US. 2002. 119 mins.

Brit wunderkind Sam Mendes takes another close look at warts-and-all America in his second film Road To Perdition, a Depression-era gangster movie set in and around Chicago which confirms both his command of the medium and his signature visual bravado. With a smashing cast led by Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, the film should win good reviews and post strong results at the box office when it opens in the US on July 12. But there are chills at the heart of this journey which are unlikely to warm up word-of-mouth or bring out audiences the way American Beauty did to the tune of $250m-plus. As for end-of-year awards prospects, it is a shoo-in at this stage only for design and technical categories.

Despite the top billing of male leads Hanks, Newman and Jude Law, the film's lead character is a 12 year-old boy, played by relative newcomer Tyler Hoechlin. For much of the film, the drama is seen from his point of view, lending a Spielbergian air to the proceedings, heightened by Mendes' decision to avoid an excess of on-screen bloodshed. Comparisons will no doubt be made at year-end between this film and Martin Scorsese's Gangs Of New York, once scheduled to open on the same day (July 12) but now moved to Christmas Day. Where Scorsese never flinches from showing the brutality of his milieux to the audience, Mendes leaves it to their imagination - a choice which in some instances compromises the dramatic impact of his story.

Based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, Road To Perdition follows the falling from grace of Michael Sullivan (Hanks), a hitman working for Irish gangster John Rooney (Paul Newman) in a town outside Chicago. Sullivan is Rooney's right arm: a dependable killer whose loyalty to his boss is unquestionable and who looks on him as the father he never had. He lives a quiet life at home with his wife (Leigh) and his two young boys (Hoechlin and Liam Aiken), neither of who knows what his profession is. Meanwhile, Rooney's real son Connor (Daniel Craig) is a trigger-happy, ambitious man desperate for his father's favour while longing to take over his empire.

The film starts with a wake at Rooney's mansion for one of his men, who he himself has had killed on account of supposed stealing. His angry brother Finn McGovern (Hinds) drunkenly tries to accuse Rooney, but is suppressed by Sullivan and sent home. Later that night, Sullivan and Connor visit McGovern to teach him a lesson but Connor impulsively shoots him in the head in a rage. Just as they are leaving the warehouse, they see Sullivan's older son Michael (Hoechlin) who has hidden in the car and witnessed the crime. Michael now knows his father's profession.

John Rooney is furious at Connor's indiscretion, but Connor sees it as a chance to rid himself of his adoptive brother Sullivan once and for all. When a bungled murder plot against him doesn't work, he goes to his house and kills his wife and younger son. Sullivan takes his older son on the run to Chicago to seek help from Al Capone's right-hand man Frank Nitti (Tucci), but Nitti's loyalty is to Rooney who is part of his organisation. Under Capone's instruction, Nitti hires a hitman (Jude Law) to finish Sullivan off.

Although Sullivan is desperate to protect his son, he comes up with a plan to take his revenge on Connor and ultimately Rooney himself, while travelling on the road to the small town of Perdition where his sister-in-law lives. Father and son are pitched in a lawless war against father and son. Mendes spins a complicated web of loyalties, criminal and familial, and the dynamic of the story is a fascinating one, especially in the portrayal of the antipathy between both fathers and their respective sons. Sullivan clearly preferred Peter (Aiken), his murdered son, to Michael Jr, while Rooney favours Sullivan to Connor, but is bound by ties of blood.

That Mendes elicits superb performances from actors, especially the (then) 13-year-old Hoechlin, is no surprise considering his rich background in theatre. Hanks is refreshingly colourless as Sullivan Sr, Paul Newman is wonderfully charismatic as the crafty businessman Rooney and Daniel Craig is a scene-stealer as the spoilt and dangerous Connor. Jude Law has a smaller role and very little substance to work with as the hitman. But in addition to the acting, the director's visual realisation is a revelation, and the mood of the film is greatly enhanced by the elegant framing (Mendes storyboards every frame himself), the dark, dank texture of the lighting (courtesy of master cinematographer Conrad Hall) and the understated production and costume design (visionaries Dennis Gassner and Albert Wolsky respectively).

Problems exist however in how the story is told. Michael Jr's life with his mother and brother is barely touched upon (Mendes reduced Leigh's part dramatically in the cutting room) and their murder is committed off-camera, so that the boy's character and reactions when he and his father go on the run feel under-developed. And although the film is book-ended and narrated by the boy, some of the crucial drama happens away from his perspective, giving a sense of confusion and distance from the central character which is hard to overcome.

This detachment from the emotional elements of the story is fine, if only the story didn't attempt to tug at the heartstrings in its finale. In an age when some directors can't keep a film's length to two hours or less, Mendes could have used an extra 20 minutes to add depths to the characters and justify the swelling portentousness of his climax (and Thomas Newman's score). Implying that Michael Sullivan was a hero to his son after two hours of barbaric murders and mayhem just doesn't wash, even if he is played by Tom Hanks.

Prod cos: Zanuck Co, DreamWorks Pictures, 20th Century Fox
US dist:
DreamWorks SKG
Int'l dist:
20th Century Fox
Exec prods:
Walter F Parkes, Joan Bradshaw
Richard D Zanuck, Dean Zanuck, Sam Mendes
David Self, based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins
Conrad L Hall
Prod des:
Dennis Gassner
Jill Bilcock
Thomas Newman
Main cast:
Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Tyler Hoechlin, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ciaran Hinds, Liam Aiken, Dylan Baker