Posted on Friday, August 20th, 2021 by Eric Vespe
(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)
The Movie: Road to Perdition
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: After winning the Best Director Oscar for American Beauty, Sam Mendes decided to follow that up with a 1930s mob movie starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Daniel Craig, and Jude Law.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Casting Tom Hanks as a tommy gun-wielding 1930s hitman is a Chef’s Kiss in movie form, the film also happens to be the last outing for legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Marathon Man) and boy did he go out on a high note.
There are a million different badass things I can start with to get my point across that this movie rules extremely hard, but the one I landed on was something fairly simple…baggage.
Every actor comes with baggage, especially A-listers, and it’s very easy to get typecast in this business for that reason. People get used to a certain flavor from an actor they like and audiences, by and large, tend to stay away from movies where an actor tries to do something different. Not always, thankfully, but most of the time that’s true.
Over the course of cinema history, many actors have specifically avoided doing anything that would strain their relationship with their audience. John Wayne was notorious for insisting that his character never died in his films, so the few examples where he was talked out of that tend to stand out. In modern times we have word that comes out about contract stipulations with stars like Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, and Jason Statham that state they can’t lose a fight.
Sure, some of that has to be ego, but some of it is also them trying to protect their image, their brand, and their very on-screen identity.
Mendes looked at his main character, Michael Sullivan, who happened to be a ruthless assassin (albeit a well-dressed one) and thought “You know who would be great in this part? The world’s most beloved actor!”
It’s not an original thought, but it’s refreshing to see it done and done so well.
Cinema buffs will remember Henry Fonda’s stone-cold villain performance in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West. That was a shock to audiences at the time because he was not that kind of actor. Vincent Price, yes, of course. Bruce Dern? Absolutely. But not America’s golden boy, Henry Fonda!
His introduction in that movie has him shooting a kid, and, to this day it’s one of the most cold-blooded performances I’ve seen by any big actor.
Hanks isn’t quite as ruthless in Road to Perdition. He is a family man, after all, and at its heart, this is a father/son movie. But that doesn’t change the fact that Hanks is introduced as a murderer, the right-hand man of mob boss John Rooney, played by the late, great Paul Newman.
Things spiral out of control when Sullivan’s young son witnesses one of the hits his father makes and is put in the crosshairs by Rooney’s careless, violent son (Daniel Craig).
It’s a road movie, a revenge movie, a father/son tale, and a complex mob story all rolled into one. The dynamic between Hanks and Newman is fascinating because the mob boss loves him as if he were his own son but also lives by the mob code, which says family comes first and foremost. So he has to protect his flesh and blood son over the adopted one he most assuredly likes better.
In another example of fantastic against-type casting, one of the most disturbing characters in the movie is a pale, psychotic killer named Maguire who is hunting Sullivan Sr. and Jr. after a price is put on their heads.
This character has waxy, pale skin, grotesquely long fingernails, and travels with a camera so he can photograph his victims the moment they die. So of course, they cast notoriously bad-looking creepy guy Jude Law.
This whole movie is filled with morally gray characters. In fact, one of the driving thoughts for the main character is to save his kid from growing up to become a bad guy. Which I guess he does because the young actor who plays the part is Tyler Hoechlin who would grow up to be…well, Superman.
The movie has everything: heart, violence, absolutely stunning cinematography, a petulant Daniel Craig, moral complexity, cat and mouse tension, and an all-timer score from Thomas Newman.
Road to Perdition is an elegant movie that isn’t afraid to get dark. Sam Mendes might be more recognized these days for his Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre (once again teaming him up with Daniel Craig), but Road to Perdition was really the first indication that this guy had the goods.
The melodrama of American Beauty‘s troubled family is all well and good, but this film feels like the true origin story of the director he would become. I can believe the guy who made this would go on to do something as ambitious as 1917.
If you’ve never seen the movie or it’s been a long time since your last viewing, you can stream it right now on Netflix, but don’t wait too long. Road to Perdition is set to leave the platform on August 31, 2021.
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