FOR SOMEONE WITH A BACKGROUND IN theater, Sam Mendes has shown himself a quick study in the seductive power of cinema — perhaps a little too quick. I succumbed with the rest to the knowing charms of his first film, American Beauty, but the movie didn't repay a second viewing. Take away the fluttering rose petals and there was little left but a glib intelligence raining low blows on that easiest of marks, suburbia. Mendes' new movie, a period piece about a conscientious Depression-era gangster with father issues, comes burdened with the same passionless intensity of style, grafted onto a nakedly Freudian domestic melodrama, and brought low by a spiritless performance from its star, Tom Hanks.

Road to Perdition is being sold as Hanks' big chance to step outside the sweetheart straitjacket he wore for much of the '90s. In principle, there's no question the actor is up to it: Even in his nice-guy roles, there's an edge to Hanks that suggests the kind of reserves of anger and severity — one thinks of Jimmy Stewart, to whom Hanks is often compared, in It's a Wonderful Life — that tend to build in people who feel obliged to be uniformly genial. By rights this dormant steeliness ought to serve Hanks well for the sad sack he has to play in Road to Perdition — there's not a hint of the voluble, jokey, instinctively brutal Scorsese thug in Michael Sullivan, a Chicago enforcer who works devotedly for the father figure who once saved his life, Irish mobster John Rooney (Paul Newman, ripe with quiet menace). Michael doesn't enjoy hurting others or the power it confers. He's a pro who kills and intimidates out of loyalty to his boss, and to put food on the table for his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two young sons. One wonders what such a colorless figure is doing as the lead in a gangster movie. Locked in the pained reserve of Gary Cooper in High Noon, Hanks barely moves a facial muscle — he's introverted to the point of dimwittedness, and given a toothbrush mustache that unsettlingly recalls both Preston Sturges and a certain Austrian whose star was rising in Germany around that time, the effect is unfortunately comic. Even when a stunning betrayal leaves Michael's hero worship of Rooney in tatters, and he goes on the run with his older son (Tyler Hoechlin), Hanks' performance is so studiously neutral, he seems barely alive. That may be the point, but the catatonia persists in what is clearly meant to be a blossoming “communication” with Michael Jr. One flees to the secondary characters for the nihilistic frisson of the genre: Rooney's biological son, Connor (played by British actor Daniel Craig), a volatile screwup with unerringly poor judgment and a preference for the psychopathic gesture; a wonderfully creepy turn by Jude Law as a crime-scene photographer who moonlights as a hit man (he's an artist who murders life) and pursues the two Michaels on their road to the heavily symbolic town of Perdition; and the coolly debonair Stanley Tucci as Frank Nitti, the only character taken from life (Nitti was Al Capone's first lieutenant).

Like a date who's primped too long to arrive at dinner with something to talk about, Road to Perdition is beautifully groomed and a perfect drag to be with. The air hangs heavy with aesthetic mission, for most of Mendes' energy has gone into displaying his influences — not just the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins on which the movie is based, but a bunch of movies inspired, in turn, by early gangster pictures. David Self's flat screenplay mimics rather than humanizes the clipped tones of a comic book dialogue balloon. We see a lot of blowing curtains and long shadows of fedora'd heads, and there's an abundance of moisture, whose significance I had to seek out in the production notes (something about the endless mutability of life). As if repelled by the exuberant vulgarity of the genre, Road to Perdition joins the hushed sadism of The Godfather with the moody despair of Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past, and its rural scenes are clearly influenced by the hyperrealist photography of Walker Evans. The best thing about the movie, which was shot by the great Conrad Hall, is its light, or more accurately a sumptuous darkness that sucks the characters into a great, watery void. The movie has some lovely moments that speak to the times — notably, a shot of a crowd of working stiffs huddled shoulder to shoulder in a cavernous public library, scanning the newspapers for jobs, while outside the rich take tea. But the film lacks energy, and the parallel father-son dramas seem so much oedipal hackery. For all the formal sophistication, there's something facile and nerveless about Mendes' work, and, in the trickery of the movie's final scenes, jarringly facetious, and sentimental to boot.

Malcolm McDowell
in Gangster No. 1
Photo by Peter Mountain

GANGSTER NO. 1 HAS A GLAMOROUS EDGE over Road to Perdition going in. Adapted from a stage play by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the movie is set in the nether regions of swinging London in the late 1960s, a cockily entrepreneurial era that couldn't be more different from the depressed 1930s (or, for that matter, from our own chastened decade), or more suited to the illicit pleasures of the gangster movie. Paul McGuigan, who directs his first feature with remarkable urbanity, wants us to experience the on-the-make flash and glitter of the period (he has at his disposal the dark gifts of cinematographer Peter Sova, who shot Donnie Brasco), but like almost everything in this clever, brutal and strangely soulful movie, the time and place are accomplished by suggestion. This is not “the Sixties”: It's the '60s, sketched in a coifed Mary Quant head here, a Twiggy-thin blond in a chain-mail dress there. Though Gangster No. 1 is an exceptionally violent movie — its prize set piece is a protracted torture scene, shot almost entirely from the victim's point of view — much of the violence is implied or offscreen, and all the more horrifying for it. And because the film is ghoulishly funny (the sharp, cheeky screenplay is by Johnny Ferguson), it's able to take evil more seriously than could any earnest melodrama.

The action opens in the present, where we see The Gangster (played by Malcolm McDowell in a smirky, carbuncled parody of his parodic Alex in A Clockwork Orange) carousing at the ringside table of a boxing match with his yellow-teethed minions. Thrown by the news that his former boss and nemesis, Freddie Mays (David Thewlis), has just been released from a 30-year stint in prison, The Gangster recalls in flashback the murky shared history that led to Freddie's incarceration. The Gangster as a youth is played with coiled ferocity by Paul Bettany, whom you may remember from A Beautiful Mind as the pretty imaginary friend Russell Crowe dreamed up to satisfy the latent homosexuality that the film's critics claimed not to have noticed in the movie. Fearless and bristling with ambition, young Gangster is recruited by Freddie for his ability to take care of business, no questions asked. He covets everything about Freddie, from his skill at managing the turf wars in London's clubland, right down to the “tasteful” black-and-gold décor and classic tailored suits that set him apart from his schleppy minions.

The Gangster assumes that he and Freddie are essentially the same man — ruthless, disloyal and driven by the joy of the kill. Only when Freddie falls in love with a skinny nightclub hostess (Saffron Burrows is all wrong for the part — the leggy beauty looks more like '60s supermodel Jean Shrimpton than like a working-class chippie, and her plummy Chelsea accents keep poking though the cockney — but the guileless, single-minded sincerity of her enormous doelike eyes moves us anyway) is the balance of their relationship thrown off, with disastrous consequences. The young thug, it turns out, understands his boss no better than he does himself, and the beauty of the film is that we have no privileged information either — we discover the two men's true natures as they do. Still, Gangster No. 1 isn't just a character study in the irreconcilable differences between a professional and a psychopath. It's a love story — complex, perverse and intense, and irreducible to mere homoerotic attraction — and, finally, a full-blown Greek tragedy, as only the best gangster movies can be.

ROAD TO PERDITION | Directed by SAM MENDES | Written by DAVID SELF | Based on the graphic novel by MAX ALLAN COLLINS | Produced by RICHARD D. ZANUCK, DEAN ZANUCK and MENDES | Released by DreamWorks Pictures Citywide

GANGSTER NO. 1 | Directed by PAUL McGUIGAN | Written by JOHNNY FERGUSON | Adapted from the stage play by LOUIS MELLIS and DAVID SCINTO | Produced by NORMA HEYMAN and JONATHAN CAVENDISH | Released by IFC Films | At Landmark's Nuart

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