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Road to Perdition

Picture: producers Richard Zanuck, Dean Zanuck, Sam Mendes
Director: Sam Mendes
Supporting actor: Paul Newman, Jude Law
Screenplay: David Self
Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Original score: Thomas Newman
Production design: Dennis Gassner
Costume design: Albert Wolsky

Whether the Academy will go for two Irish-American gangster movies in one year is a question that hovers over “Road to Perdition.” In another year, without the specter of Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” arriving in the holiday season, director Sam Mendes’ expressive, deeply felt drama about criminality, destiny and family would have the field to itself as Hollywood’s latest contribution to the gangster and American period genres. With “Gangs” crowding the streets during award season, though, “Road” has a battle on its hands.

Nevertheless, the film benefits from the precedent of DreamWorks’ brilliant campaign for “Gladiator,” which also opened in the summer and then received a generous push via its well-engineered homevideo release. The studio is applying the same strategy here, and it is likely to strongly revive voters’ memories.

Not only is the film stuffed with past Oscar winners — director Mendes, actors Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, cinematographer Conrad Hall — but it’s imbued with many of the same thematic and production qualities that distinguished other Oscar winners. The serious dramatization of the legacy of crime passed from one generation to another, the moral dilemmas it raises and the lavish, painstaking re-creation of Depression-era America will connect “Road” in viewers’ minds with Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (parts 1 and 2). Another Oscar winner from which these Irish gangsters draw strength is “Bonnie and Clyde,” which clearly had a profound influence on Mendes’ conception.

For the film to ultimately have best picture momentum, the performances by Hanks and Newman, and Jude Law, in the blood-curdling role of Maguire the photographer-assassin, will have to impress the actors branch.

That there may be some reluctance by some to go for Hanks in a defiantly hard and tough role is indicative of the award season challenge faced by the film as a whole, which may be why its best chances are with the Newmans (Paul and composer Thomas) and beloved lenser Hall.

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