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Plenty of cinematic hopes are being pinned on Road to Perdition, the second film from Englishman Sam Mendes. And for good reason: His smug, sententious debut, American Beauty, stuffed its vision of dystopic suburbia with both enough red meat to please the masses and enough artiness to please susceptible critics. In a profile in last week’s New York Times Magazine, he’s called the master of the “commercially viable prestige pic,” and he carefully explains how his two audiences might perceive the complexities of his new one: There’s the surface story, about fathers and sons, and the “subtle, complex layer about violence and redemption and the secret life our parents lead that we never really know about. That’s the secret movie.”
Actually, that’s the plot. Tom Hanks plays Mike Sullivan, an Illinois mob enforcer who treats his work for powerful local boss Mr. Rooney (Paul Newman) merely as a way of putting food on his family’s table. One night, his curious older son, Michael (Tyler Hoechlin), secretly tags along on a job and witnesses a “talking-to” gone out of control thanks to Rooney’s hotheaded son, Connor (Daniel Craig). Connor then whacks Mrs. Sullivan and Michael’s younger brother. So Mike goes on the run with Michael for a six-week road trip in which he uses his criminal skills and basic human decency to pressure the big boys in Chicago, who have regretfully put a slimy hit man/photographer (Jude Law) on his trail, to give up Connor so that he can take tidy biblical revenge.
Mendes’ certainty that the groundlings won’t recognize the dreary old myths of American violence our foreign friends are so besotted with is symptomatic of his snobbishness. And Road to Perdition is a tremendously snobby film, though its two-fisted Americanism makes it prudish rather than tony. Sullivan is a good guy because he clings to the trappings of wholesome American fatherhood; the villains are evil because they act like Nazis in those early-’60s everybody’s-in-’em World War II movies—strutting, craving icky food, and taking bubble baths.
Road to Perdition was originally a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, and Mendes can’t resist the finicky lighting and elaborate compositions of a high-toned comic, from curvilinear railings on church steps set against a cloudy sky to the deco swoops of a Chicago bridge. His metaphorical motif is our old friend rain, dripping dolefully off the brim of Hanks’ fedora. The actor’s shaded eyes under that brim provide all kinds of arty fun during the handsome silent massacre near the end, which begins with a bullet bursting through a bodyguard’s umbrella.
Because this slick self-consciousness is supposedly for the benefit of the wonder-struck audience, not the characters, it rarely serves the narrative. It’s hard to see, for example, what about his first glimpse of violence affects young Michael so deeply when the shooting he witnesses is filmed in excruciatingly fancy slow motion and augmented by a lengthy salvo from an unnecessary tommy gun. Surely he isn’t horrified by the suddenness, ugliness, and finality of the killing—perhaps it’s the soulful lighting that leaves him quivering in a corner afterward.
If Mendes really had something to say about “violence and redemption,” he wouldn’t get off so gleefully on picturesque brutality, the beauty of arcs of blood and brains on the wall. This loving depiction of mayhem is appalling, but it’s also isolated from reality through the use of mirrors and window reflections, symmetrical peepholes and unseen sources of dewy light—indicating that Mendes views his subject as nothing more than an abstraction. The same goes for the characters, who, for all the actors’ yeoman work in bringing them some psychological oomph, remain period-dressed ciphers.
Homegrown directors from David Lynch to Clint Eastwood to Christopher McQuarrie have been subverting or sending up such received grandiosities as gangster romanticism and suburban darkness for decades now, but their limey counterparts can’t seem to keep their mitts out of the tat pile. No doubt Mendes is a skilled director, but his exquisite tastefulness can’t make up for the fact that, deep down, he has horrible taste.
In the lazy, loud, and instantly forgettable summer sequel Men in Black II, actors Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones reunite to play agents of a secret government organization that routs out alien presences here on Earth. Smith returns as former rookie Jay, unhappy with a series of hapless partners, who must deneuralyze Jones’ amnesiac Kay and rerecruit his old mentor back into the Black forces.
Their nemesis this time out is Lara Flynn Boyle’s Serleena, an evil extraterrestrial looking for some kind of precious light thingy, which Kay has secreted on this planet since 1978. She enlists Johnny Knoxville as her grungy, two-headed confederate. Only he’s really stupid. There’s also a talking dog and a bunch of little alien worm fellows who are supposed to be funny because they seem to enjoy luxury.
Neither Smith nor director Barry Sonnenfeld appears at all interested in getting it up to entertain the masses who supposedly clamored for more MIB. The contempt displayed on-screen is so thick it’s palpable, the cash register ka-chinging as special effects pile up alarmingly fast (per minute, this is purported to be the most expensive live-action feature ever filmed) and Danny Elfman’s blaring score drowning out the ice-cool banter.
Sonnenfeld directs like a cute but dumb animal, soullessly frantic, capering grotesquely after every joke or trick to make sure you got it. Despite seeming bored and subdued, both lead actors have enough auto-chops to carry them through, particularly Jones in his early scenes as a post-office employee. His body language is completely different, with a strange, tentative walk and uncharacteristically floppy hands that are a perfectly rendered detail. Still, in a movie about colorful interplanetary baddies, the funniest thing going should not be a pop-eyed pug singing “I Will Survive.” CP