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Sam Mendes became somewhat of a sensation in Hollywood after his debut American Beauty garnered critical acclaim after its 1999 release. Breaking into entertainment through the theatre, the big break in film - and worldwide status - came with the story of Lester Burnham’s mid-life crisis.

And after the release, people were wondering if Mr Mendes was a bit of a one-hit wonder…I myself loved American Beauty so it seemed unreasonable to expect another brilliant piece of celluloid from the fellow Brit.

So when Road To Perdition was released in 2002, I approached it with enthusiasm and a slight sense of trepidation in equal measure. Starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law, it revolves around the story of Michael Sullivan's son, and the moment he witnessed a brutal slaying in which the lives of this 12-year-old and his gangster father are shattered irrevocably. Now, targeted by the mob he's devoted his life to, Sullivan and his son find themselves with nowhere to turn and a sadistic killer in pursuit. It's here, in a fierce and primal struggle to stay alive and protect his boy, that this lifelong gangster will discover honour and redemption, and try and stop his son from travelling the ‘road to perdition’.

Road To Perdition

The Film
The first thing that hits the viewer when watching the film is how visually pleasing it is - from the first frame to the breathtaking finale, director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (who sadly passed away after the release of the film) define the ‘30s era with style and panache.

The story that plays within this setting is as intricate and involving as the presentation: beginning as a look at gangster life, it continues into the realms of loss and redemption successfully. Very successful in fact.

Adapted by David Self from a graphic novel of the same name, the script is written with a good pace, and the characters are developed well - each displaying their own faults and flaws that is needed in this genre.

For those who thought that Sam Mendes was a director who got lucky…well, yes, you’re right. If you think that the luck he possesses ran out after American Beauty, you are actually wrong - Mendes is lucky that he is immensely talented, and no, this helmer ain’t going to lose his craft anytime soon if his first two films are anything to go by. Handling action scenes with enough skill to put most other directors to shame, and handling more intimate dramatic moments with subtle understanding, it is a crying shame he didn’t take home the Best Director Oscar for the second time.

The acting on offer is also worthy of my highest praise: Tom Hanks excels in his first ‘bad guy’ role, displaying moments of evil (his job description is basically ‘murder on demand’) but also moments of goodness when mourning the loss of his wife and second child, or the bond that grows between him and young Michael whilst they are on the run.

Paul Newman, who received an Oscar-nomination for his part as gangster John Rooney, is again on fine form, his eyes twinkling yet his intentions much more darker than some may originally see. The chemistry between him and Hanks’ character Sullivan is of particular note.

The rest of the supporting cast - Jude Law and Tyler Hoechlin to name but two - deserve many kudos for their part in defining the film too. Putting a certain name in the limelight again, I must single out young Hoechlin, acting in his first proper role. Although he is a pre-teen, the quality of his acting is way beyond his young years, and I am betting money right now that sometime in the near future we will be hearing a lot more from him.

To sum up Road To Perdition in two words: sheer brilliance. It is captivating, breathtaking, impressive and entertaining - things that separate a good film from something that can be called near on a classic.

Road To Perdition

Video
2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen. As said before, Road To Perdition is a visually sumptuous film, therefore the DVD needs to endorse such high quality with a crystal-clear transfer…and luckily, we get a transfer that can be deemed ‘reference quality’. With absolutely no artefacts present, wonderful colour definition, and a crisp picture, this is something that you can not only marvel at but also use as an excuse for showing off the capabilities of your home cinema.

Road To Perdition

Audio
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English). This was originally said to come with a DTS soundtrack as well, but for unknown reasons - most probably due to disc space (or lack of it) - it was ditched, and we get a Dolby Digital mix on its own. But, it is certainly nothing to lose sleep over as what we do get is indeed of very high quality, and again something that can be classed as very, very good. The surrounds are used frequently, mainly for gunfire; and for the rest of the duration the front channels are crisp and clear when replicating dialogue. The soundstage is enveloping, and the ambience levels are good too…meaning that all in all this is a very active and accomplished soundtrack.

Road To Perdition

Extras
The extras kick off with an audio commentary with director Sam Mendes, which is an interesting way to re-watch the film. Mendes is obviously very passionate about film, especially the ones he helms, and so his talk is full of vibrant anecdotes and insight.

Next up is a collection of deleted scenes, all with optional commentary from Mendes again. The selection of scenes is fairly diverse - some are mere extensions of ones that made the final cut, others are completely original. A highlight of the package, and one that most people have no doubt heard of by now, is the scene in which Al Capone makes an appearance (played by Anthony LaPaglia). However, like with most, if not all of the deleted scenes, it is understandable why it was axed. Good for those who enjoyed the film, mind.

The majority of DVDs carry some kind of making-of featurette, and Road To Perdition is no exception. A 20-odd minute extra entitled HBO Special: The Making of Road To Perdition is what this package is graced with. And when I say graced, I mean it, as the majority of featurettes are mere backslapping exercises, but this one thankfully carries more weight. With a decent look behind-the-scenes and interviews with cast and crew, this is something else that will compliment the film well.

A rather unique extra in the way that it hasn’t really been used much before is the CD Soundtrack Trailer. Doing exactly what it says on the tin, it is a very brief showcase of the soundtrack/score that accompanies the film. Not that exciting.

There is a well-presented photo gallery that contains numerous stills from the production, navigated through using your remote control as ever. Interesting, but not that accessible.

Some cast & filmmaker biographies and production notes round off the package - static pages of text, although they do carry a lot of information on their allocated topics. Worth a brief look at if your eyes can stand it.

The menus are animated well, if a little subtly (no massive explosions or fast-moving animations here), with Newman’s (Thomas, not Paul, that is) score in the background. They are very easy to navigate and well designed.

Road To Perdition

Overall
The film is a breathtaking look at the deep, dark realms of corruption and evil, told through the eyes of an innocent yet not-so-naïve pre-teen. Boasting marvellous performances and sheer cinematic visuals, this is a testament to the power of filmmaking.

It is very evident that Sam Mendes isn’t some Brit that got lucky with his debut, and who will then subsequently fade into B-movie hell. Instead, he is sure to remain at the pinnacle of directing for a long time to come, and if I had had my way, Mendes would have walked away from the 75th Academy Awards with his second Oscar.

The point about the Oscars brings me onto my next point about Road To Perdition. I feel I must point out that if Dreamworks had released the film in ‘award season’ (a term, and concept, I hate) then I bet the Academy would have showered it with nominations, and hopefully even given the majority of the awards to it. But, a summer release Stateside ensured that all hopes were dashed for the ‘big’ awards, so it had to make do with the lower ones, aside from Best Supporting Actor (Paul Newman) and Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall).

On the subject of cinematography, it is a fitting tribute that Hall’s last film was this - which contained some of, if not all, his best work since his long-term career began. He previously won an Oscar for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Mendes’ debut, American Beauty, but his work on Road To Perdition also won him the gong: for a damn good reason too.

Although this has faded away after the tidal wave of award-hopefuls such as Gangs of New York, The Hours and Chicago (all three are inferior films), I think that now on the home cinema format Road To Perdition will prosper.

And another reason it will prosper, aside from a near-perfect film (that’s two out of two ‘near-perfect films’ for Mendes), is the strong DVD that supports it. The visuals are equally breathtaking - crisp and clear throughout; the audio is enveloping although perhaps a DTS mix would have ensured reference quality; and the extras are good, quality-wise, if a little sparse. Perhaps some lengthier interviews and featurettes looking at various aspects of the film would have turned them from a fairly good set to an excellent bunch.

Currently residing as one of my favourite films of all time (and no doubt it will retain this title for a very long time to come), boosted by a good package, equates to a very simple summary of this review: buy it!


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