'Road to Perdition' a dreary journey

Tom Hanks is tired of being Mr. Nice Guy, and he's done something about it.

In the thriller "Road to Perdition" he plays Michael Sullivan, a 1930s mobster who kills people for a living – about as far from the heroes of "Forrest Gump" and "The Green Mile" as you can get. (See interviews with Hanks and other cast members)

It's an imaginative leap for this popular star, but it's not as radical as it seems. While he's a hit man by trade, Michael is also a dedicated family man who justifies his grim profession because it allows him to provide a decent life for his wife and kids.

The film begins with a slow subplot about mob rivalry, leading to a murder witnessed by Michael's boy, who then becomes a target because he knows too much. A thug botches the job of eliminating the boy, killing Michael's wife and other son instead. Vowing revenge, Michael and his surviving child head for two kinds of Perdition – an oddly named town where they hope to evade their enemies, and the spiritual suffering Michael knows he'll undergo when his bloody adventure reaches its climax.

"Road to Perdition" was directed by Sam Mendes, who showed a taste for dark subjects in "American Beauty," his Oscar-winning debut film. This time his approach is even more somber. Although the plot centers on Chicago mobsters, it rarely has the pumped-up feel of most Prohibition-era crime movies.

Mendes surrounds it with a dreary vision of middle America, full of barren vistas and domestic spaces wrapped in shadow. All this makes "Perdition" a change from summer fare, but it doesn't make the picture compelling to watch. You won't find the detail of the "Godfather" films or the psychological complexities of Martin Scorsese's gangster movies. The plot holes are big enough to hide Al Capone's illicit millions in.

Hanks capably handles the challenge of creating a sympathetic villain. Supporting him are Paul Newman, overacting a tad as Michael's old mentor, and Jude Law, enticingly weird as a rival hit man. David Self wrote the screenplay, which asks us to love Michael despite his murderous ways because his heart is full of family values. I don't think audiences will buy into that idea.

• Rated R; contains violence and foul language.

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