Two Summer Skirts

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Even though "Road to Perdition" is essentially a Hollywood summer blockbuster, it's surprisingly exciting and beautiful. This story of maturity among criminals and growing up amidst violence plays nicely against Sam Mendes' handsome monochrome palette, creating an existential noir fantasy in the spirit of "The Godfather." It's not especially profound, but extremely well-crafted.

Like M. Night Shyamalan and Wes Anderson, Sam Mendes is carving a distinct visual signature, a rarity for Hollywood directors. As in his Oscar-winning debut "American Beauty," Mendes seeps his film in odd, vivid colors, creating an unsettling world of half reality, half dementia. Unfortunately, his stories ride backseat to his style, but then again, Mendes' gift isn't as a storyteller but as a painter of splendor in motion.

It's almost like watching a comic book come to life, with hard-boiled characters inhabiting a self-contained world with little attention to character development and a huge emphasis on stylistic excess. Mendes manages to save himself by generating momentum in the second half of the film, including a powerful montage of bank robberies, followed by a bravura execution scene where men in trench coats and fedoras silhouetted by surrounding streetlamps get gunned down by a killer in the shadows. When the men get shot, they seem to enigmatically freeze in midair, like a snapshot of murder or a frame from a graphic novel. Meanwhile the camera dramatically sweeps by and Thomas Newman's gentle score frames the violence with tenderness.

Nothing, however, is as surprisingly effective as the choice of Tom Hanks to play the assassin father. This has little to do with Hanks' talent, but merely the effect of his appearance. Personally, I don't think Hanks has tried very hard since "Philadelphia," and instead, simply allows directors to adapt his good-guy persona and let our conception of him do the trick. But it is exactly his lack of acting here that makes him convincing. Had he "played" the part, it would feel like the kind of revolting hams the silver screen makes of both post-Oscar Kevin Spacey or Robin Williams.

Developing characters the old-fashioned way, however, are a pair of Hollywood's most precious actors. Paul Newman may not look like Fast Eddie anymore, but he's still got those eyes of pain. His scenes make the film feel more mature than it really is. And as the assassin tailing the father and son, Jude Law is mesmerizing. When he walks, he struts and slouches with the vulnerability of a child and the evil of a true Hollywood villain.

They say every fledgling director can't resist using the zoom/track shot (popularly known as the "Vertigo" shot), and Mendes uses it here. It may show his na´vetÚ as a film director, but it also reveals his knowledge and excitement about the movies. He's improving. His use of color is even more effective than "American Beauty," and though I'm not convinced by his gimmicky voice-overs, I am impressed that he is at least creating a personal vernacular outside of the norm. "Road to Perdition" isn't a perfect film, but is solid summer entertainment, and extends the promise he showed in his debut.


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