Road to Perdition (2002): A Movie Review Essay

Friends, let me start by saying that I can only give this film a 6.5 out of 10.

The film is not terrible, but it does not truly excel. Now, you may be asking yourself: How can you have a film with Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, and Daniel Craig, and come up with anything less than a five-star affair?

Well, I think a good part of the problem lies in the precious, velvet gloved treatment that Tom Hanks and the character he plays is treated with by the film.

Say what?

Here’s the deal

The story is set in Depression-era New York City, among the Irish Rooney mob. Paul Newman plays the mob boss, the Don, as it were. Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, the mob’s chief hit man/enforcer, and, apparently, the adopted son of Paul Newman’s character.

Friends, I watched this a few days ago, having borrowed the DVD for free, from my local public library.

I had forgotten that Daniel Craig was in this movie. He plays a Fredo-like character, that is to say, the sniveling, slimy, weak, disloyal heir apparent to old man Rooney (Newman).

Jude Law plays an independent assassin for hire, who is hired to kill Michael Sullivan.


Daniel Craig and Jude Law play particularly slimy, unappealing characters. The problem with this, in this case, is that one gets the feeling that this was done to make Tom Hanks’s character look better and more sympathetic by comparison.

This goes to that “precious, velvet-gloved treatment” of Tom Hanks and his character in this film, that I alluded to earlier.

If you compare Tom Hanks’s performance in this film, as a “bad guy” hit man, to Tom Cruise’s performance as a bad guy hit man in Collateral, we see a big difference.

What difference? What on Earth are you talking about?

Here’s what I’m talking about:

In Collateral (2004) Tom Cruise (hit man “Vincent”) is allowed to be bad without apology. Tom Cruise is truly playing against type, as it were.

In Road to Perdition (2002) Tom Hanks is only allowed to be somewhat, reluctantly bad with massive apology. One might go to this movie expecting Mr. Hanks to be “playing against type.” But this is not really the case.

You may be asking yourself: What is wrong with having Tom Hanks play a character that is “only allowed to be somewhat, reluctantly bad with massive apology”?

Well, as I began to indicate earlier, the problem is that other characters, and their motivations, are put through a funhouse looking glass mirror. This causes the credibility of the entire movie to suffer as a result. In other words, the “suspension of disbelief” is, itself, suspended.

What’s the plot?

Michael Sullivan (Hanks) gets the call to go out on a mission for Mr. Rooney (Newman). He and a partner is to “talk” to a guy, for blah, blah, blah… criminal underworld-type reasons, you know…

Now, the guy ends up being shot to death by Daniel Craig’s character.

Blah, blah, blah… that wasn’t supposed to happen.

Blah, blah, blah… we were just supposed to “talk” to the guy.

Blah, blah, blah… you’re such a hot-head psycho…

Blah, blah, blah…

Out of the corner of his eye, Hanks sees something. He and Craig pursue.

Who is it? A witness that has to be similarly eliminated?

The witness turns out to be Michael Sullivan’s twelve-year-old son, Michael Sullivan, Jr.

“He must have been hiding in the car.”

Say what?

Anyway, moving on…

Oh no! What are we going to do now? Can the boy be trusted to keep his mouth shut?

Stuff happens and then Sullivan (Hanks) ends up having to protect his son from the Rooney mob, to whom he had previously gave his full faith and service.

Blah, blah, blah…

Friends, I know I’m writing “blah, blah, blah…” a lot, but believe me, you are all the better for it.

Here’s the point: Tom Hanks’s goodness, which the movie never made me doubt, becomes married to the skills he acquired allegedly being “bad” for the Irish mob.

Now, because we’re dealing with Tom Hanks not really playing against type, we learn that the entire reason that Michael Sullivan (Hanks) was ever “bad” in the first place, was for a “good,” or, at least, sympathetic reason.

Now, the reason that Michael Sullivan (Hanks) became “bad” for the Rooney mob was because he owed a debt to Old Man Rooney. It seems that a poor, orphaned Michael Sullivan was given shelter, food, and a place to belong, a family, by Old Man Rooney (Newman).

Say it with me: Blah, blah, blah…

So what we end up with, then, is this: Good Guy Tom Hanks has to go against the Bad Guys of the Rooney mob. But the only reason Hanks stands a chance is due to the skills he picked up as a Qualified Bad Guy — Bad Guy for a Good Guy debt repayment reason, blah, blah, blah…

I long for the day when we get to see Tom Hanks play an unapologetic bad guy or villain, in the same way Bruce Willis did in The Jackal (1997), or Henry Fonda did in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969).

Thank you for reading!

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