Monday, August 9, 2010

ROAD TO PERDITION: Blu-Ray (Dreamworks/20th Century Fox 2002) Paramount Home Video

For his follow up to American Beauty (1999), director Sam Mendes delves into the pages of Max Allen Collin's pulp graphic novel, Road to Perdition (2002); a dark, brooding and melodramatic exploration of Depression era America. The screenplay by David Self retains Collin's sparse use of dialogue while Conrad Hall's evocatively cinematography, in retrospect, seems the very essence of vintage chic - both contemporary yet eternally classic.

Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a skilled hit man for Irish mob boss, John Rooney (Paul Newman). On the surface, Rooney is a grand old man of philanthropy and good will. Michael's sons, Mike Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken) adore him as the grandfather they never had. In truth, Michael was an orphan found by Rooney and nurtured like his second son to the point where he decided to join Rooney's men in enforcing John's law about the small town they reside in. Michael owes his entire existence to Rooney and cannot conceive of a time when his good fortune or loyalty to this man will end. Rooney's real son, Connor (Daniel Craig) is, by comparison, an utter disappointment: an unstable and murderous thug who delights in killing.

The story is told through Mike Jr.'s eyes after he accidentally witnesses Connor kill one of the thorns in Rooney side; Finn McGovern (Ciaran Hinds). Before Finn's execution, he eludes to the fact that it is Connor and not his late brother who has been skimming off the top of Rooney's money pile reserved for Al Capone. Michael swears his son to secrecy, but the next day the boy is mildly belligerent toward Rooney who decides then and there that he cannot be allowed to live. Sending Michael on a wild goose chase with presumably a message of collections for Calvino (David Spinuzza), the proprietor of a disreputable flop house, Michael quickly deduces that something is terribly wrong when he spies a loaded pistol loosely hiding just beneath some rumpled papers on Calvino's desk.

In the ensuing showdown, Calvino is killed and Michael reads the note intended for him declaring that if he, Calvino, kills Michael his debts to Rooney will be wiped clean. Realizing that Rooney intends to wipe out his entire family, Michael rushes home but is too late. His wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Peter have been assassinated in their upstairs bathroom with Mike Jr. having survived to tell his father that it was Connor who committed the murders.

Michael and his son flee to Chicago where he hopes to implore crime kingpin Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to provide him with protection in exchange for his services as Nitti's new hit man. Frank is sympathetic to Michael's plea, at least to his face, but refuses the offer - instead, alerting Rooney and his men to Michael's plan and his location. In response, Rooney hires Harlen Maguire (Jude Law) to find Michael and his son and kill them. Maguire is a psychopath whose kinky fetish it is to photograph his victims for posterity.

Realizing that the only way to be free of Rooney once in for all is to have a bargaining chip worthy of keeping him alive, Michael trains his son how to drive a getaway car and together they begin to rob banks all over the Chicago area, stealing only the illegal stash the mob bosses have been collecting for Al Capone. Maguire sets a trap for Michael, using Rooney's accountant Alexander Rance (Dylan Baker) as bate. The rouse works in luring Michael to Rance's hotel room, but in the hailstorm of bullets that follows Rance is killed and Maguire's face horribly scarred by projectile glass from a shattering vase. Michael narrowly escapes the carnage but is wounded in the arm.

Frightened, Mike Jr. drives his father to a remote farmhouse where an elderly couple agree to look after them until the wound has healed. As a gesture of goodwill for their kindness, Michael leaves much of the money from the robberies behind for the couple to spend as they wish.

Michael now turns his attentions to Rooney, whom he confronts in church with the knowledge that Connor has been stealing from him all along. Rooney tells Michael that he has known this and Michael suddenly realizes that this vendetta will never end until Rooney, Connor and all his hit men are dead. That night, Michael leaves his son in their hotel room and stakes out Rooney and his bodyguards on a lonely street. Destroying Rooney's entourage with a submachine gun, Michael confronts Rooney for the last time. "I'm glad it's you," Rooney tells Michael before being gunned down in cold blood. Michael's final act of vengeance is reserved for Connor, whom he shoots - appropriately enough - while he is taking a bath, thus completing the circle of revenge begun with the murder of his own wife and child.

From here, Michael decides to take his son to the Lake Michigan seaside retreat of his wife's sister, Sarah (Diane Dorsey) where he has envisioned at long last they will be able to start anew. Alas, that dream is not to be as Maguire has already arrived at the home, murdered Sarah and is waiting to do the same to Michael and his son. Maguire succeeds in his assassination of Michael, but not before Michael manages to execute him with a single gunshot to the head. With nowhere to go, Mike Jr. takes Aunt Sarah's dog back to the farmhouse of the elderly couple who, in the film's epilogue, we are told reared him as their own into adulthood.

Road To Perdition is sobering entertainment, it's powerful message of a flawed father/son relationship poignantly realized in David Self's screenplay. Like Mendes' American Beauty, this film scours the archives of familial disarray in a vane search for redemption and understanding with Thomas Newman's score perfectly capturing that disjuncture between a child's blind faith in his parents and the staid reality when he suddenly realizes neither possess all the answers. Despite its moments of shocking, occasionally grotesque violence, the narrative's heart is remarkably subdued and focused on that emotional bond between father and son that remains intact to the bittersweet end.

Paramount Home Video assumes control of another Dreamworks release - this one originally co-produced by Dreamworks and 20th Century-Fox and originally released to DVD via Universal Home Video. While improving on the video and audio presentation of that previous release, Paramount's new Blu-ray is unremarkable in just about every category.

The image is not nearly as stark or razor sharp as one might expect and fine details are not as particularly punchy as anticipated. To be certain, the characteristics of Conrad Hall's cinematography are subtle and softly focused, but the image itself seems to lack in a richer color fidelity. The stylized flesh tones herein are not pronounced but merely present and accounted for. Details that ought to be apparent in close up, for example in hair and costume fabric, are just not there. A fair amount of film grain is present throughout the transfer - as it should be - and nicely reproduced herein. Again, for most who have only seen one or two films on Blu-Ray this presentation will not disappoint, though it does tend to fall considerably short of the high bar set by other Blu-Ray releases.

The audio is lossless DTS and starkly aggressive - particularly during gunfights when one's surround channels really get their workout. Paramount has imported all of the extra features that were included on the previously issued DVD, as well as two new reflections on the making of the film - one a tribute to Conrad Hall. There's also a new introduction by Sam Mendes and the original audio commentary to delve into - also from Mendes - and the film's theatrical trailer. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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