by Ben Kenigsberg "Natural laws. Sons were put on this earth to trouble their fathers." So says John Rooney, lecturing Michael Sullivan. What he says is true, at least, in Road ...

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by Ben Kenigsberg

"Natural laws. Sons were put on this earth to trouble their fathers."

So says John Rooney, lecturing Michael Sullivan. What he says is true, at least, in

Road to Perdition

, a moody gangster picture about a boy whose curiosity puts his father in jeopardy, and about the father's adoptive father, whose other son's waywardness is the cause of bloodshed.

But the film only advocates filial piety with a caveat. The fathers are no saints themselves, and the sons, while being mindful of their parents, need to avoid making their mistakes.

The father-son subtext of

Road to Perdition

gives the movie a poetic resonance. Sure, all sons are baggage for their fathers, but when your father is a hit man, mischief has a higher cost. The underlying message of the movie is the same as that of

The Godfather

: gangsters are humans too.

Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a bit Tom Hagenesque: he was adopted by Chicago crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) and raised to be a hit man. It's 1931, and he now has a family of his own -- a wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two sons, Peter (Liam Aiken) and Michael (Tyler Hoechlin). At night, he goes on "missions" with Rooney's son Connor (Daniel Craig), but his children are unaware of what their father does for a living.

One night, young Michael follows them to work and witnesses a slaying. "Can he keep a secret?" Connor asks. "He's my son," old Michael replies.

At first, the hit man's word is enough is enough for old man Rooney, who has served as a grandfather figure to young Michael and genuinely wants to know that the boy is all right. "You can't protect him forever," he tells the elder Michael. "If it wasn't this, it would have been something else."

But soon admiration for the child isn't enough for Rooney. The boy, he surmises, could threaten his interests. So Rooney sends another hit man (Jude Law) after Michael and son, who retaliate by robbing money from Rooney's associates. The body count goes up. The title refers, literally, to Michael and son's trip to the town of Perdition outside of Chicago, but the movie is really about their descent into Hell.

Michael Jr. comes across as the saddest figure. The point-of-view shots of young Michael witnessing the murder -- and a little later, the shots of him realizing the consequences of his prying -- epitomize the story. The violence strips him of his idealism; he stops reading his

Lone Ranger


His father's idealism, meanwhile, was crushed long ago. After Michael witnesses the shooting, his father explains to him, somewhat perfunctorily, that working for Mr. Rooney is not an option. Without Mr. Rooney, he says, they wouldn't have a home, and despite not liking his job, he must pay his debt.

The film lags for a quarter of an hour or so when Michael Sr. starts robbing banks. The picture loses its essential grimness during the robbery sequences and turns into satire a la

Bonnie and Clyde

. But the movie redeems itself with a confrontation between Newman and Hanks in a church, and the final scenes are abrupt, brutal, and totally shattering.

Road to Perdition

was directed by Sam Mendes, whose great

American Beauty

has been the subject of a mild backlash ever since it won the Best Picture Oscar.

Road to Perdition

is a different kind of film -- more stylized and atmospheric, and, in its own way, bleaker. There's a pervading sense of death to the proceedings; unlike in most crime movies, the characters have a heightened awareness of their mortality.

To say the gloomy atmosphere is enhanced by Hollywood veteran Conrad L. Hall's cinematography is like saying that the spy-movie conventions of

North by Northwest

are enhanced by Hitchcock's direction. Hall, who won an Oscar for

American Beauty

, also did brilliant work with Newman on

Cool Hand Luke


Butch Cassidy

. He shoots

Road to Perdition

in the style of old film noir, with cigarette smoke always bathed in maximum light and faces cast in shadow by fedora brims. His shots of rain on windows are reminiscent of his work in

In Cold Blood

. A brilliant shot involving a mirror and a bathtub is a model of visual understatement.

Production designer Dennis Gassner, who also worked on the Coen brothers' similar

Miller's Crossing

, complements Hall's work, giving us an amazingly intricate hotel, an old-fashioned roadside diner, and somber church interiors.

Newman's performance is the crux of the movie. His John Rooney can go from loving father to violent businessman in a matter of seconds, and in two scenes -- one in which John beats, then hugs Connor, and one in which he chastises Connor at a meeting -- he's in absolute peak form. If there's one thing the movie could have used more of, it's Newman, because the merely adequate Hanks doesn't have his presence.

Mendes has a terrific supporting cast as well. For starters, there's Law, whose hit man provides the movie's only source of dark comedy. Even more astonishing is Craig. Since Connor is hot-blooded, it would be easy to overplay the role, but Craig finds just the right notes. It's chilling when he asks young Michael to call him "Uncle Connor." Stanley Tucci is intriguing as Frank Nitti, an employee of Al Capone who wants to help the Sullivans but wants to protect his investments more.

Road to Perdition

doesn't have anything new to say, but it travels the beaten path remarkably well. The story has been cleansed of its inherent luster and sentimentality.

Road to Perdition

may be a Hollywood father-son bonding epic, but it's a despairing one.

Men in Black II

is more of an excuse to sit in an air-conditioned theater for 88 minutes than it is an actual movie. When a film makes almost $600 million, the common wisdom in Hollywood is that the film should have a mate. But let's face it:

Men in Black

, while funny, was no


. The sequel merely co-opts the plot and some of the jokes of the original. In the spirit of the enterprise, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones do exactly what they did in the first movie, but with less energy.

Casting Adam Sandler as the lead in a remake of a Capra movie, sacrilegious as it may sound, wasn't a bad idea. Capra's maudlin sensibility doesn't translate that well (it's hard to watch Jimmy Stewart's filibuster in

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

without wincing), even if his movies are justly regarded as classics. The ever-antisocial Sandler, who likes speaking in impossibly cartoonish voices, is the opposite of a good-hearted, stalwart Capra lead.

Which is precisely why the casting could have worked. Remakes that tread too close to their originals nearly always get burned. But what's surprising about

Mr. Deeds

, a remake of Capra's

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

(1936), is that it tries to be as earnest as its predecessor. And since Sandler sounds totally disingenuous delivering the film's climactic speech, about how people need to follow their childhood dreams, the new film feels even more Capra-corny than Capra's picture.

Mr. Deeds

is absurdly faithful to the first film. Not only is Winona Ryder's character, a journalist, still named Babe Bennett, but one of Ryder's costumes seems modeled after one worn by Jean Arthur. The only change in the character, actually, is that Arthur played a good reporter, and Ryder, for whatever reason, plays the character as a hack.

The movie even goes so far as to use some of the original's dialogue, just short of verbatim -- an unwise move, since people don't speak the way they did in 1936. "I know you're laughing at me because I seem funny to you," Sandler says. "If you came to Mandrake Falls, you might seem funny to us. Only no one would laugh at you because that's not good manners." Adam Sandler is the last person who should be talking about manners.

I don't share the general critical hatred of Sandler. Anyone who's listened to his CDs knows that he has a certain raunchy wit. His more manic pictures, like

Billy Madison

, are funnier than his ostensibly highbrow work, like

Happy Gilmore


Mr. Deeds

, unfortunately, falls into the highbrow category. It's too good-natured to be anything other than a dull satire of high society.

As in the original, the strangely named Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper in the original, Sandler here) is a well-to-do New Englander who writes greeting cards as a hobby. One day, two lawyers inform him that he's inherited $40 billion from an uncle he never knew. When he comes to New York to collect his money, he's bewildered by life in the big city. Journalist Babe Bennett wants to utilize Deeds's foolishness as a newspaper-selling tool, and to do so, she disguises herself as Pam Dawson, a virginal school nurse from Winchestertonfieldville, Iowa, who steals Deeds' heart. So whenever Deeds does something foolish, Babe is right by his side, secretly reporting.

In both movies, Deeds is no fool, but it's possible to believe that Gary Cooper's naf would fall for fast-talking newspaperwoman Jean Arthur, simply because Arthur was able to make her schtick sound real. One of the new movie's serious missteps is its casting of Ryder, who in the scenes where she pretends to be Pam Dawson never for a moment sounds like someone telling the truth. "My grandfather was in ABBA," she tells Deeds. He believes her anyway; the story must go on.

In the original, Deeds decided to give away his fortune to impoverished families. Since Capra's Depression-era message wouldn't have the resonance it had (or so I imagine) in 1936, the movie glosses over that part of the story, leaving itself with no third act.

The film still has a few good gags. There's a very funny sequence where Sandler is at a ritzy health club, learning how to play tennis. Sandler accidentally smacks a ball into a man on the sidelines, but is told, "It's okay. He's a new member."

Two veterans of

The Big Lebowski

, a movie that I never miss an opportunity to plug, provide many of the laughs. Veteran #1 is Steve Buscemi, who plays Crazy Eyes, an eccentric resident of Deeds's hometown. Veteran #2 is John Turturro, hilarious as Deeds's foot-fetishizing butler. There's also a cameo by John McEnroe, who joins an inebriated Deeds in egging cars.

The funniest scene involves Deeds's uncle's funeral, which features a eulogy by Al Sharpton -- playing himself, of course. "This guy could make a fortune writing greeting cards," Deeds quips, awed at Sharpton's rhyming ability. If the rest of

Mr. Deeds

were that clever, it might have been Sandler's best film.