Adapted for the screenplay by David Self from Max Allan Collins' and Richard Piers Rayner's comic-book novel, Road to Perdition is a Depression-era crime drama. It's 1931, and John Rooney (Paul Newman) is an Irish Mafia Godfather somewhere outside Chicago. He's into booze, extortion, money laundering and murder. His ace triggerman is Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks), an orphan boy he raised like his own son. When people need doing, Mike does them. But you've seen The Godfather movies, so you know that these cold-blooded killers are actually complicated people just trying to make their way toward the American Dream. They are family men. John never actually adopted Mike, but he loves him, just as John loves his own biological son Connor (Daniel Craig), and just as Mike loves his own two pre-teen boys. Find a chiseling rat. Waste him with a slug. Always pack a gat. Give your kid a hug.
Alas, into this sanguinary Eden creeps Jealousy. Connor doesn't like Mike precisely because his dad does. That these two men have gotten into their 40s without coming to blows makes as little sense as most of the plot developments to follow. This flick ought to be about a father seeking redemption, but instead it's about a father seeking revenge. In sum, 12-year-old Mike Junior (Tyler Hoechlin) witnesses Dad and Connor do a bad, bad thing, Connor responds by killing Mike Junior's mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and younger brother, John tells Mike Senior he has to side with biological over adopted, and Mike Senior tries but fails to enlist the assistance of Capone gang crime lord Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci). Each scene is staged with the solemnity of a Shakespeare production, and each achieves the depth of its comic-book origins.
Next come the bald contrivances. Mike Sullivan is a veteran hit-man, but nonetheless, disappointed in his request, he disses Frank Nitti. Only movie guys are that stupid. And this movie has two of them. Shortly later, Connor disses Nitti, too. So at that level these guys are true brothers and share a genetic death wish. Nitti sends out after Mike a creepy assassin named Maguire (Jude Law) who gets his jollies by taking snapshots of his victims. Mike is on the lam, but Maguire fixes his location because he just happens to overhear a phone conversation between Mike and his sister-in-law. Naturally. Almost instantly, Maguire manages to show up at that exact diner in the middle of East Cornfield where Mike is trying to choke down some chow.
And then the swift move from the merely nettlesome to the truly ridiculous. To hound Nitti into cooperation, Mikes Senior and Junior begin to rob banks, and as if financial institutions kept separate accounts in separate vaults, they are careful at each one to steal only the money belonging to the Capone gang. (Really, I am not making this up.) Robin Hood and Robin Hoodlet, they don't want to harm innocent farmers and small-town businessmen. Apparently, their reputation precedes them, for when Maguire manages to get some hot lead into Mike Senior's shoulder, he and the Hoodlet are cared for by a childless farming couple who just happen to be perfect bleeping strangers.
There was some debate after the breakthrough success of American Beauty as to whether the true creative force in that movie was director Mendes or writer Alan Ball. Since Ball has gone on to helm HBO's distinctive family drama Six Feet Under and Mendes has produced this embarrassment, I think the argument is pretty definitively settled. What a cast Mendes attracted to Perdition (pun very much intended). The stars of this film aren't just good; they're as good as cinema has to offer. But good players can never save a pathetic script. And neither can the great cinematography of the legendary Conrad L. Hall, who gave American Beauty its memorable look. Despite the annoying decision to require characters repeatedly to stand around in drenching rainstorms, the photography and visual atmospherics of this picture are absolutely terrific. But that can never make up for a story that proceeds from plodding to preposterous to predictable.