Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) turns to the ever-popular gangster genre for his second outing. The result is a dark troubling drama of revenge that explores the ways fathers influence their sons in ways both desirable and destructive.

As is often the case, this mobster movie introduces men caught up in the violent cycle of "an eye for an eye." Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a murderous gangster in the employ of Mr. Rooney (Paul Newman) who rules the town with crime and a grandfatherly smile. Rooney treats Sullivan like a beloved son, which drives his own boy Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) to dangerous jealousy. Connor is a reckless monster with an itchy trigger finger, and eventually his behavior deals Sullivan a devastating blow. Sullivan vows revenge, hoping Rooney and the mob will see his cause as just. They do not. Mr. Rooney reluctantly hires a perverse assassin (Jude Law) to hunt down Sullivan, who has taken his young son Michael Jr. and gone into hiding. So the chase is on as Sullivan plots his revenge.

Road to Perdition may look like just another way for Tom Hanks to make a bid for the Best Actor Oscar. Hype for film has centered on Hanks playing a "bad guy" for the first time. And yes, Hanks is impressive. But this is more than just an actor's showcase. Perdition is full of real questions and moral dilemmas. In a year when Americans have suffered grievously at the hands of violent men, the theme of revenge carries added weight. You may find it troubling as Mendes skillfully sways you to sympathize, and perhaps even cheer for, Sullivan as he guns down his colleagues. Sure, he's protecting his son, but he also has a bloody agenda for revenge. Is there a similarity between Sullivan's quest to gun down blood-seeking mobsters and America's quest to bomb out the men who would violently strike us in the future?

Regardless of its muddy ethical dilemmas, many critics in the religious and mainstream press agree that Perdition is stylish, well-acted, and perhaps Oscar-worthy. Some add a disclaimer because the film is quite violent. A few take a harsher view, arguing that the film is a pretentious case of style over substance.

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) calls it "a visually interesting and richly layered story that will have you thinking about it and wanting to discuss it with your friends. Fathers, it will challenge you to take a close look at your relationship with your children … and examine how you think they see you versus how they really do."

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Similarly, Lisa A. Rice and Tom Snyder (Movieguide) praise it as "a fascinating study on the dangers of 'religion without relationship,' and the need for children to know their father's heart."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic observes, "As Mendes examines moral decisions with generational repercussions, the actors' nuanced performances stand out in a sea of popcorn summer movies. The divisive morality tale is layered with regrets, bad decisions, and a good dose of gruesome violence. But also weaved in with the theme of betrayal is redemption, filial love and family responsibility." Regarding the violence, he adds: "The camera is unflinching in capturing its ugly brutality, never glamorizing the crimes. And yet there is a certain strange beauty in seeing Hanks walk determinedly though puddles with a machine gun in his hands."

Mary Draughon (Preview) finds all of these gunshots off-putting: "The intense violence and foul language make it a poor choice for discerning moviegoers."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) asks, "Is this visual assault desensitizing us to the loss of life?" Yet he concludes, "As filmmaking goes, it's as good as it gets."

The same dichotomy is emphasized by Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family): "Perdition is a challenging, deep-thinking, gut-wrenching, soul-searching experience. But, of course, it can never be left there. A river of blood and a thorny patch of vulgarity have to be crossed before you can get there."

In a chat with critics at the Chiaroscuro Discussion Board, Darren Hughes criticizes the way Mendes aesthetically manipulates the viewer. "Perdition wants desperately to be a film that is recognized for complicating and questioning morality. But [it] never lets its audience wrestle with honest moral ambiguity. We're steered constantly by Thomas Newman's score … and by Mendes's heavy-handed, self-conscious direction, which combine to create exactly the opposite effect of a film like The Godfather. Instead of confronting us with the consequences of violence, Mendes aestheticizes it. We see a man shot point blank in the head, then watch as his body falls gracefully to the floor in super slow motion. We see Hanks tommy gun ten men, again in slow motion, in the rain, under lamplight, to the sound of beautiful music. Mendes takes every shortcut imaginable, apparently so that he won't alienate our affection for Hanks and his character."

After praising its "visual richness" and cast, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "the central characters are inaccessible to me; the story left me emotionally detached throughout. In the end, I found the whole thing self-conscious and artificial—a collection of momentous themes and evocative images that somehow never transcends technique and craft to become a real film."

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Greydanus is also displeased by the use of religious symbols in place of real spiritual exploration. "The movie's pervasive Catholic imagery was ripped from more integral themes of confession, forgiveness, and redemption that in the book are tied to a faith-affirming final revelation that provides a moral context for the whole story, but which is omitted from the film."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) agrees: "It … includes a fair amount of religious referencing although it never delves into the spiritual truths which are supposed to dwell behind the symbols and rituals," Still, he is impressed: "Mendes shows a level of artistry and craftsmanship which is truly enviable."

As I've thought over the film, I've become troubled by how Mendes portrays Sullivan's sufferings, but not those of other gangsters that Sullivan guns down. I must assume some of them were loving fathers and husbands as well. Such details would show us more clearly what kind of man Sullivan really is, what kind of damage revenge can do. In spite of some token words that say otherwise, he appears to be an admirable figure, sorely wronged, with every right to lash out at whomever gets in his way. Thus, Perdition never achieves the profound impact of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, in which the hero's revenge quest leads us to question if he is really so different from his enemies, or if the ends justify the means. And yet, like the recent Insomnia, Perdition affirms (just barely) the hero who refuses to start down the path of violence in the first place. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

Mainstream critics compared the film to other famous gangster films—especially The Godfather saga and Miller's Crossing. Others even mentioned Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. But some were not so eager to sing its praises.

Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) says the film continues a dangerous, dishonorable trend in American revenge-plots. "[Perdition] exploits infantile notions about vengeance, even though it's careful to tack on a moral disclaimer at the end. What bothers me is the compulsive reliance on revenge in movies, not only as a dramatic staple but as an embodiment of this country's sense of ethics. It's seldom examined in detail; instead it's usually glamorized, with the avenger most often seen (as he is in Road to Perdition) as a model of grim stoicism, driven by some sense of a higher purpose."

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Rosenbaum goes on to point out the danger of such glorified revenge epics. "The sanctioning of such ideas has real consequences, reinforcing, for instance, the idea that the recent invasion of Afghanistan was an appropriate response to terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, even though the attackers were dead, most of their sponsors weren't caught, and many innocent Afghans' lives (the current estimate is more than 3,000) have been lost."

Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) praises the cast and cinematographer, but finds Perdition to have the grim mechanics of Greek tragedy. "It has been compared to The Godfather," he writes, "but The Godfather was about characters with free will. There is never the sense that any of [Perdition's] characters will tear loose, think laterally, break the chains of their fate. Choice or its absence is the difference between Sophocles and Shakespeare. I prefer Shakespeare."

Both Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) and Stephanie Zacharek (Salon.com) complain of heavy-handed "deliberateness." Zacharek argues, "When a gangster takes a drag on a cigarette, the plumes of smoke that wreath his head look as if they'd been called in from central casting. ('We want something round, not too wispy, with a little curlicue at the end.') Its deliberateness becomes oppressive."

Katrina Onstad (National Post) muses, "At one point, Michael tells his father that he likes Bible stories, and Road to Perdition feels like one, in the best ways—rich, elegant, well-intended—and the worst—pompous, a little dull, and joyless."

Whether this Scripture-esque story will make Mendes the first director to win Best Picture on his first two movies remains to be seen. But he has certainly given audiences some serious questions to consider, something few other films this year have done.


Digest: Gangsters and The Godfather—Why They Still Matter

As Road to Perdition opens, audiences are catching glimpses of another film about gangs in early America—Martin Scorcese's Gangs of New York. This film will delve into the history of gangs that flourished in Irish and Italian immigrant communities. Why is it that gangsters, whatever their origins, continue to fascinate us?

Reader Darren Bouwmeester writes, "We have all been wronged at times only to feel impotent in our ability to do anything about it. Likewise we all feel at times that law enforcement deals out unequal justice. The gangster does everything that we would do if we were not restrained by law and our conscience. The gangster film appeals to our basest desires of revenge and vigilante justice."

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Lori Wilson interprets gangster movies differently: "Mafia stories are the stories of dysfunctional families. This is why so many people relate to them—the necessity of 'family loyalty' and secrets over truth and openness, the commitment and closeness of the Mafia ties that gives a sense of belonging, the the patriarch who not only must be listened to and obeyed, but agreed with."

Jason Morehead writes, "Themes of grace sometimes resonate stronger in these 'shady' movies than in cleaner films. A good example of this would be the 'heroic bloodshed' movies of John Woo (who is a Christian), such as The Killer and A Better Tomorrow. They're populated with cold, calculating killers and mobsters who all live by a strict code of honor. And yet they want to be free of that code because of the horrible things it makes them do. Inevitably there's a scene of redemption when they must make a sacrifice (usually in a blaze of gunfire) to save themselves and others, or they experience love and it changes them."

Without a doubt, the most influential and enduring gangster stories are the chapters in Frances Ford Coppola's The Godfather trilogy. While at the time of their release, the first two episodes were accused of misrepresenting Italian Americans, these stories have become something akin to Shakespeare. Roy Anker (Books & Culture) describes The Godfather Saga as a "wrenching fugue on moral decay. At once inescapable and self-chosen, an appalling evil devours mob son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). By part 3, aging and soul sick, Michael reaches for Christian redemption but chooses ill yet again, arriving at a final unfathomable devastation."

Jean from Texas takes an altogether different view: "I'm one of the few holdouts—all of my friends and family rave about the Godfather series, Goodfellas, etc. All I can see in these movies is the avoidance of hard work, and an excuse to air plenty of sarcasm, cynicism, foul language, violence against women and the family, and every addictive behavior known to humanity. It's pornography in another guise."

I asked Christian film buffs and critics what it is about Coppola's classics that makes them so compelling. Are these films merely popular, or are they truthful and meaningful?

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Peter T. Chattaway calls the films personal favorites. "Why are these films so appealing? Partly because every father regrets what he has become, to some degree, and he hopes his son will become something better. Partly because we all have power fantasies. Partly because the societies depicted in these films have strong codes of honor and shame, and we long for a bit of that. Partly because they capture the tension within immigrant communities between the old, traditional way of doing things and the new, modernized way of doing things (and the old way of doing things isn't always better, as the mere existence of the mafia indicates). Partly because these films explore, in almost mythological terms, that murky boundary between personal family matters and professional business matters. I am also fascinated by the way Michael, in the second film, talks about becoming strong in order to protect the people you love, and then asks whether it is possible to become so strong that you end up destroying those very same people."

Rich Kennedy says the films "made identifiable, compelling, and accessible a previously mysterious and hidden subculture." He argues, "What makes it so compelling is Don Vito (Marlon Brando). His subtlety, clarity, and honesty (within the limits of his profession) tower over the first two films. [His son] Michael descends to exactly the opposite. The good Corleone who can be trusted pulls a mastery of subterfuge and duplicity out of the depths of his soul in the aftermath of the Don's assassination and finds quite a reserve down there." He adds, "The series can be about a subtext of who God is and how we are made in His image, but cannot presume to be Him."

Dan Buck finds "a fascinating dichotomy within the Italian mafia—an organization known best as criminals that holds to a strict organizational, ethical, and even religious paradigm. That seems contradictory to us, so we're interested in them. I think it allows us all a chance to see redemption within the depraved, which ultimately is ourselves. We're all criminals, we all have those unspeakable crimes in our past, and yet we can still have an air of sophistication and integrity."

Darren Hughes is intrigued by "the moral ambiguity of their antiheroes. Despite its shocking violence and seeming nihilism, there's a moral core to the film, one personified by the Don: Protect your family. That core becomes grotesquely distorted in his children, a change mirrored by the dissolution of 'old country' values in post-war America. I like it because it's an immigrant story, an American story. What are the opening lines? 'I believe in America. America has made my fortune.'"

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Hughes also makes the connection to the Bard of Avalon. "Watching the inevitable fall gives the films the shape of a Shakespearean tragedy—like Lear, but with sons. To me, The Godfather I and II is an epic morality play that happens to be set amid gangsters. I probably wouldn't care much about it otherwise."


Hot from the Oven

If you believe critics of Rob Bowman's action-packed adventure film Reign of Fire, it sounds like the heroes spend most of their time running from dragons and stumbling blindly into massive plot holes. Film Forum summarized the film and a few early responses last week. This week, religious press critics delivered their reviews.

The U.S.C.C.B.'s reviewer calls it "convoluted and chaotic. The bottom line is that with cardboard characters and a story line that doesn't work hard to engage the audience, Reign of Fire is an empty spectacle. At one point, a character concludes, 'We have paid a terrible price.' So will moviegoers if they bother with this preposterous movie." Phil Boatwright agrees that it is "a muddled mess both in story and dialogue."

Paul Bicking (Preview) weighs the pros and cons and concludes, "Several tense scenes may upset children under ten and strong profanity drags down the Reign Of Fire."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "Reign of Fire begins promisingly. However, its inventiveness evaporates into a series of steely glares between alpha males, and absurd offensives against a winged foe that has no business losing to these guys." Yet, Smithouser is surprised at the film's restraint in its portrayal of violence. "What's shocking is how much the filmmakers chose not to show. That restraint may frustrate viewers hungry for gory details, but families can take heart in knowing that not everyone in Hollywood is out to beat the system."

Separating himself from the nay-sayers, Eric Rice (Movieguide) says, "Despite some strong profanities, a harsh humanist worldview and plenty of man versus dragon violence, this movie is a relatively harmless, wild, entertaining adventure story."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "Despite the plot holes and lack of better dialogue between characters, I still enjoyed this movie because of the unusual premise, incredible special effects, and Matthew McConaughey, who makes a great action hero."

Michael Elliott's review notes symbolism instead of script problems: "Paratroopers who do battle against the dragons are called 'archangels'; graffiti on an exit sign near the dragon's lair indicates '666'. The references should come as no surprise. Dragons have long been associated with the devil. By comparing the dragons' behavior in this film with what we know of the nature of our spiritual adversary, we can draw many parallels. The dragons feed on death or ashes—the devil holds the power of death. Both the dragons and the devil instill fear into the hearts of their victims."

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Meanwhile, mainstream critics lined up to point out things that confound the intellect. Andrew O'Hehir (Salon.com) says, "There's really nothing wrong with the premise of Reign of Fire, as ludicrous science-fiction premises go, but director Rob Bowman … does almost everything he can to ruin it." He concludes, "A monster movie with boring monsters is a boring monster movie."

Roger Ebert counts up implausibilities and plot problems.

MaryAnn Johanson argues that the film is too focused on practical solutions, without enough exploration of virtue and spirituality. "Reign of Fire could have stirred the soul. There's a lot of power here—firepower, that is—and not enough Force."


Dragons aren't the only scaly monsters crawling across screens this week. Steve Irwin stars in The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, the big screen version of his popular television show. The fact that a nature show would make it to the big screen is a testament to its popularity.

Religious press critics are behaving like big fans. Mary Draughon (Preview) concludes, "Crocodile Hunter … is funny, informative and exciting … 105 minutes of wholesome, and educational, entertainment."

Jesse Florea (Focus on the Family) says, "If you're a fan of Steve Irwin's television show, you'll love every scene he's in. There's never a dull moment with Steve on the screen and the action is enough to keep audiences of all ages entertained."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) agrees, but he also points out a "mild environmentalist message."

Phil Boatwright likes the TV show, but not the movie: "Irwin may be the greatest showman since P.T. Barnum … he's a lot of fun. Well, at least on TV. [The movie] isn't funny or interesting. Here, he's trapped in a one-ring circus."

Similarly, Michael Elliott reports: "Irwin … makes the film far more enjoyable than it otherwise might have been." But he adds, "The extraneous plot is immediately forgettable."

Mainstream reviewers responded to the film with stunned disbelief and confusion. Most disapproved, but some were inadvertently amused. MaryAnn Johanson (Flick Filosopher) gives it the strangest recommendation you'll hear this year: "You must see this movie if only to wonder at its very existence. I'll bring lots of people along to see it again, if only so at the end I can say, 'I'm not crazy, am I? This movie is insane, isn't it?'"

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Next week: Enough of these gangsters and dragons. Bring on the Eight Legged Freaks. Plus, Harrison Ford returns as a Russian sub captain in K-19: The Widowmaker.