movies: Bloody Beautiful 

Though fueled by stunning visuals and understated, powerful performances, "Road to Perdition" keeps the brakes on its emotional impact.

Even more, the movie is about smoke-filled rooms with dark wood-paneled walls where men with the power of life and death in their hands wheel and deal. It's also about a gorgeous amber-colored light that bathes Paul Newman and Tom Hanks as they sit side by side at a piano. Some scenes are so beautifully composed (the splendid handiwork of master cinematographer Conrad Hall) they will take your breath away.

"Road to Perdition's" story line, however, remains as bleak and unflinchingly ugly as the graphic novel (by Max Allan Collins) on which it is based.

Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is a grim family man, loyal to his mob boss, John Rooney (Newman), and seemingly devoted to his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and young sons, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken). But Sullivan's stony beliefs are shaken to the core one rainy, icy night when a "job" he's doing for Rooney goes horribly awry. In the blink of an eye, Sullivan and young Michael — who's witnessed something no child should see — must flee Chicago. As the two race for a safe haven, they are pursued by a contract killer (Jude Law).

David Self's intelligent, spare screenplay takes its time introducing the characters. We first see Hanks down a long hallway, tracked by the curious eyes of his eldest son, who watches almost breathlessly as his father removes a gun from his pocket. A man of few words and fewer smiles, he's the polar opposite of Newman's Rooney, who with his shining white hair and those still-lively blue eyes, early-on seems a charming, benevolent grandfather. But that soon changes.

Bound by love and loyalty if not blood, Sullivan and Rooney share a bond that's infinitely more complicated than the one between Rooney and his own son Connor (Daniel Craig) and seemingly more fulfilling than that which Sullivan and young Michael share.

An actor's showcase, "Road to Perdition" presents us with four men of different generations, temperaments and intellects. Newman, now an incredible 77, moves across the screen with the confidence and demeanor of the icon he is. His voice is more of a slow growl than ever before, and yet, it suits his character who strides through smoky room after smoky room and delivers such telling lines as "Only one guarantee ... None of us will see heaven."

Law, with his handsome looks masked under sallow makeup and thinning hair, slithers through the movie like the snake he is. With believable insolence and cruelty, his Maguire is a monster who finds death a powerful seductress he must court.

Though only 13 years old, newcomer Hoechlin often carries this weighty film on his thin shoulders. He does so masterfully, with a quiet ease that belies both his age and experience. And Hanks, for once shedding his trademark teddy-bear goodness to play a bad guy, turns Michael Sullivan into a deeply flawed but ultimately heroic figure. A man without humor and perhaps too much misplaced loyalty, he struggles with how to communicate love to his son.

Despite the prevalence of tommy guns spitting out death round after round, "Road to Perdition" delivers a strong message against violence. It is a gorgeous film about epic ugliness, a bloody beautiful film whose look will leave you breathless. Yet something vital is sorely missing, the emotional impact such stunning visuals and powerful performances need and deserve. S

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