CAST: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Tyler Hoechlin, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dylan Baker, Ciarn Hinds, Liam Aiken, Doug Spinuzza, Diane Dorsey, Peggy Roeder, James Greene

DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes

British director Sam Mendes proves that "American Beauty" was no fluke with this dark, somber, visually stunning portrait of organized crime in the midwest, as practiced by Capone's goons in Chicago and their more sentimental but equally brutal Irish underlings in the burbs...With an intensity bordering on the biblical, Mendes, screenwriter David Self and legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall boldly etch the flat, sterile landscape of 1930's Illinois--as menacing in sunlight as in the shifting shadows and thick rain of night--and introduce a league of fathers and sons, cronies and traitors, each destined to participate in a ritual that will be swift and slaughterous when it finally comes.

Standing proud and confident at the head of this dubious class is deceptively jovial John Rooney (a splendid, persuasively Irish Paul Newman), the back-slapping, Communion-taking unofficial boss of a town where the thugs never sleep and the cops rarely wake up. He does well by his grown son Connor (Daniel Craig), a snake-eyed, lewdly smiling ingrate who is a bastard in every sense of the word but the literal. But John truly dotes on Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks, in an astonishingly strong performance), who was a good little Catholic boy before John saved him from the orphanage, gave him an education and a home, and then turned him into the hottest hit man in town, if not the entire nation. Michael still attends Mass on Sunday with his wife and two sons, but all it takes to transform him into a human machine gun is a simple nod from surrogate father John.

Life might have gone on in this idyllic manner were it not for the fact that bad-seed Connor Rooney--who's been sulking because Michael Sullivan's son witnessed a mass execution of some hoods by Michael and Connor--puts on a mask, takes out a gun, goes to Michael Sullivan's home and murders his wife and son. The wrong son, as it turns out. Within hours, Michael--no longer a loyal servant to John Rooney--is speeding through the night toward Chicago, with his surviving son (appealingly underplayed by Tyler Holechlin) in the back seat. His ultimate destination, of course, is revenge.

You don't need to know much more about the plot, except that it cribs a bit from both "Bonnie & Clyde" and "Paper Moon" in its strained-humor demonstration of how daddy turns his little boy into a bank-robbery accomplice. As an antidote to this cotton candy, we are rewarded with an outrageously vile turn by Jude Law as a sickie named Maguire, a sniveling, sadistic specialist hired by a Capone henchman (Stanley Tucci, impeccable as ever) to dispose of Sullivan and his son. What's Maguire's specialty? He really gets off on taking intimate close-ups of dead people, usually just after he's killed them. But it's okay--this being Chicago in the thirties, Maguire has press credentials.

A flawed exploration of America's flirtation with lawlessness and its love of guns, "Road to Perdition" falls short of such classics as "The Godfather," "Miller's Crossing" and "Prizzi's Honor." Still, it packs a visceral and intellectual punch, offers an awesome display of cinematic technique, and provides us with the opportunity to see superstars Newman and Hanks at the top of their serious-acting form. They're terrific together, even when they're killing each other.