Mendes’ Airless Opus Fails to Move

Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition , from a screenplay by David Self, based on the graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins and illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner, had received so much advance adulation by the time I saw it that I felt Mr. Mendes could be forgiven for already rehearsing his second Oscar-acceptance speech in a row (the first being for the much-overrated American Beauty ). Mr. Mendes’ latest opus is literally and figuratively a wintry film, defiantly released in the endlessly mindless movie-marketing summer. Indeed, there is so much rain, snow and ice on the screen that I thought I was watching a remake of Winterset (1936).

Road to Perdition seems to have everything it needs to win awards: a dignified, artfully photographed, lavishly backgrounded, delicately homicidal gangster story; two Oedipal father-son traumas for the price of one (like the summer’s biggest hit, Spider-Man , albeit without Kirsten Dunst to supply the romantic sparks); nuanced Irish-American ethnic performances by previous Oscar-winners Tom Hanks and Paul Newman; not to mention an undeniably brilliant portrayal of a comic-book creation, a combination crime photographer and hit man, by the infinitely talented Jude Law.

So what’s not to like? Well, for starters, I chuckled quietly over the writing credit for the “graphic novel.” What the hell is a “graphic novel”-a comic book with chutzpah? Sadly, the whole movie is similarly pretentious, portentous and humorless. The muffled opening scenes establish Michael Sullivan (Mr. Hanks) as a devoutly religious hired assassin for his spiritual father, John Rooney (Mr. Newman), who works for Al Capone. Sullivan has two sons, 12-year-old Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and 9-year-old Peter (Liam Aiken), and a dutiful wife generically named Annie Sullivan (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who says grace before each meal but never says much at any other time. When Michael Jr. sees his father unpacking a gun from his suitcase, he wonders what his dad does on his frequent business trips. Junior’s curiosity about Daddy’s doings eventually precipitates a family disaster.

The stage is set for gangland intrigue at a luxurious Irish wake for a gang member who has run afoul of Boss Rooney’s mad-dog son, Connor (Daniel Craig). Rooney is clearly more fond of his surrogate son, the admirably stoic and thoughtful Michael Sullivan, than he is of his actual son. This is a familiar situation in post-World War II westerns: Sooner or later, Papa will have to choose between the ties of blood and the imperatives of character. Inevitably and fatally, he will choose the bad son over the fatherless hero.

At the wake, Finn McGovern (Ciarán Hinds), the father of the slain mobster, begins railing against Rooney. He is led off the premises by Rooney’s men and sent home. Rooney dispatches Michael and Connor to “talk” to him-”Just talk,” he emphasizes to his hot-headed son. Connor wants to go alone, but his father insists that Michael accompany him as a steadying influence.

At this pivotal moment in the plot, Michael Jr. rashly hides in the back of his father’s car to find out about his father’s business. He follows Michael and Connor to a bootleg-liquor warehouse that McGovern supervises for Rooney. One verbal exchange leads to another, and an enraged Connor shoots and kills McGovern, forcing Michael to machine-gun the rest of McGovern’s entourage. The slaughter is shown entirely at feet-level from the point of view of a prone Michael Jr. outside the warehouse, peering through the hole in the door. It is very reminiscent of Brandon de Wilde’s point-of-view vantage for the climactic barroom gunfight between Alan Ladd and Jack Palance in George Steven’s Shane (1953).

The trouble is that in this golden age of child actors, Master Hoechlin is not up to the task of generating filial pathos, even the modest amount required for what the film historian Raymond Durgnat has designated as the “male weepie.” It’s not entirely the child actor’s fault: Mr. Mendes has prescribed so much less-is-more understatement in the father-son scenes that the kid has very little time and room in which to react. When Michael Jr. is discovered by his father and Connor, Michael assures the crazily duplicitous gangster that Junior will not tell anyone what he has seen.

When Rooney learns of his son’s misbehavior he lashes out at him, but ends up cold-bloodedly deciding to eliminate Michael and his entire family to avoid even the possibility of exposure. Connor kills Annie Sullivan and little Peter, but Michael and Junior escape and drive to Chicago, where Michael hopes to enlist the help of Capone lieutenant Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), thereby enabling him to kill Connor and avenge his murdered wife and son. But Nitti has already been contacted by John Rooney and refuses Michael’s request. Michael then begins robbing Capone-funded banks, with Junior driving the getaway car. There is only one policeman in the movie, and he is immediately shot by Nitti’s contract killer-crime photographer Maguire (the aforementioned Mr. Law)-while he’s pursuing Michael and Junior. There are certainly no traffic cops to stop a child from driving a car all over Chicago and some of Illinois as well. In fact, there don’t seem to be any law officers anywhere, and very few bystanders, innocent or otherwise. There are some circa-1931 worker murals, proletarian extras masquerading as victims of the Great Depression, and some human gridlock meant to evoke “The City” in arty terms. In the end, nine out of the 11 top-billed characters are dead, and a town named Perdition becomes the locus of a kind of redemption and salvation.

Strangely, there is nothing glaringly wrong with Road to Perdition . Mr. Mendes has not miscalculated particularly; he has simply calculated with an excess of exactitude. There is no room in his carefully colored and shaded compositions for characters to breathe with any spontaneity. The millions and millions of dollars that have gone into the production are fully visible on the screen, digital effects and all. Perhaps I’m simply not partial to Englishmen who presume to understand America and Americans better than natives. Perhaps I’ve never been very impressed with “important” films that virtually exclude the female of the species and are thereby honored for their courageous “seriousness.” But then I never particularly liked David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). I must say I was never bored by Road to Perdition , but then I was never moved either, and ultimately that’s all that matters for me.

Underrated Bourne Identity

Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity , from a screenplay by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum, has been as much underrated as Minority Report and Road to Perdition have been overrated. This is to say that I was pleasantly surprised when I finally caught up with it, because I had not been led to expect too much on the basis of its generally lukewarm notices. Moviegoing and even film criticism are largely a game of anticipation: No one goes to a movie with a completely open mind. A swirl of opinions keeps buzzing in your head as the movie unfolds. With an auteurist like me, the past performances of directors count for more than subjects, genres, and literary or subliterary sources. Consequently, I was predisposed to take Mr. Liman’s first big-budget project more seriously, despite its dubious literary provenance. Why? Simply because his first three low-budget projects- Getting In (1994), Swingers (1996) and Go (1999)-were strikingly original enough in their fluid line-readings, visual coups through camera placements, and seemingly practiced ease in projecting multiple points of view.

Hence, when an amnesiac (Matt Damon) gradually deduces that his name is Jason Bourne, and that he has worked as a lone-wolf hired assassin for the C.I.A., I stifled my initial impulse to yell out, ” Deja vu! Deja vu! ” And I’m glad I did, because Mr. Liman and his colleagues eventually came through with an elegant entertainment visually based in the real world (represented by locations in Italy, Paris and Prague) rather than in the invented futurist world of Minority Report or the manufactured and digitized dead past of Road to Perdition .

That The Bourne Identity did not turn out to be as much of a megahit as its artistically inferior genre competitors may be due to the less-than-superstar status of Matt Damon. Frankly, I can take Mr. Damon or leave him, but in this instance I find him particularly well-cast as an amnesiac, since he generally gives the impression of being-well, not exactly dumb, but somewhat laboriously faux-naïve. He’s the kind of guy you don’t want to play poker with, because he’s got the anguished, slightly constipated deadpan look down pat.

But what a wonderful idea to cast the authentically internationalized Franka Potente as Marie Kreutz, Bourne’s German-American pick-up outside the American Embassy, from which he’s fleeing the American guards. Ms. Potente retains some of the delectable sassiness she displayed so winningly in Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998). Then there are the bad guys, so well cast, written and directed, with Chris Cooper as C.I.A. director Ted Conklin, so much more restrained and laconic than he was in his overheated role as a closet gay and homophobe in the aforementioned American Beauty ; Brian Cox as his bureaucratically menacing superior, Ward Abbott; and best of all, the stolidly spectacular Clive Owen as the Professor, a lone assassin, like Bourne, out to terminate him for the C.I.A.’s peace of mind.

Even though we know that, in a rollicking adventure yarn like The Bourne Identity , the hero cannot die, we are entertained by wondering how he will escape all the forces arrayed against him with all the latest technology at their disposal without making us snicker. Somehow Mr. Liman manages to preserve the tension without sacrificing the credibility of any of the characters. There is a weary professionalism at work in Mr. Cooper’s exasperated silence with each new batch of bad news, in the perpetually furrowed brow of Mr. Cox as he prepares to terminate his troubles with as much ruthlessness as necessary, and in the matter-of-fact casualness with which Mr. Owen confronts his own extinction by a fraternal gesture of co-existence with his adversary, a fellow assassin.

As an added dividend, Julia Stiles plays a minor-league role, as a C.I.A. electronic Girl Friday, with a major-league charisma. The Bourne Identity , like Enigma before it, demonstrates that “big and expensive” does not have to be synonymous with “vulgar and stupid,” and that the mainstream can sometimes-though admittedly not very often-launch an intelligent movie worthy of comparison with the best products from the small, muddy creek of independent cinema. One final thought: Could it be that attacks on the C.I.A. might strike many moviegoers as disloyal after 9/11? I certainly hope not. We need all the cinematic muckraking we can get, now more than ever.