July 18, 2002
By Franklin Harris
Not every comic-book character who makes his way to the silver screen wears a cape or leaps tall buildings in a single bound. Some of them are normal guys just trying to play the hand life dealt them.
"Road to Perdition" starring Tom Hanks opened last week and already has people talking about Oscar nominations for best picture, best actor (Hanks), best supporting actor (Paul Newman) and best director (Sam Mendes).
So, would it surprise you to learn that "Road to Perdition" is just as much a comic-book movie as "Spider-Man" and "X-Men"?
Before it became a film, "Road to Perdition" was a comic book — or "graphic novel," if you prefer — written by Max Allan Collins, illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner and published by DC Comics.
In fact, "Road to Perdition" owes a double debt to comics. The inspiration for Collins and Rayner's tale of an Irish-American mob hit man seeking revenge for the death of his wife and youngest son comes from a Japanese samurai comic, "Lone Wolf and Cub."
Written by Kazuo Koike and drawn by Goseki Kojima, "Lone Wolf and Cub" is a top seller for its American publisher, Dark Horse Comics. More than 20 volumes are in print.
It just goes to show that there is more to comic books than costumed superheroes. And Hollywood seems to be learning that good comic books, treated respectfully, usually make for good movies, regardless of genre.
"Road to Perdition" survives the transition well, although the Catholicism that is essential to the comic is absent from the screen. Mendes, whose overrated Oscar winner, "American Beauty," attacked the middle class, doesn't seem interested in portraying Christianity in a positive light, either.
Still, "Road to Perdition" is an excellent film, even if it isn't quite as good as the TV ads would have you believe. It isn't the best gangster movie since "The Godfather." That would be "Miller's Crossing." And Hanks isn't always believable as a cold-hearted killer.
But Newman brings an appropriate sense of tragedy to his character, an aging crime boss for whom loyalty to family trumps all else, no matter the consequences. And Jude Law is disturbingly creepy as a hired gun who photographs the corpses of his victims.
"Road to Perdition" isn't the only spandex-free comic book to go Hollywood. Another is Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's fictionalized account of the Jack the Ripper murders, "From Hell," based on Stephen Knight's discredited "nonfiction" book, "Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution."
The movie version, starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, was a modest box-office success, and it is now available on DVD.
But "From Hell" is at best a loose adaptation of its source material. It owes more to an earlier Ripper film, "Murder By Decree."
Last year also gave us the independent sleeper hit, "Ghost World," a quirky coming-of-age film based on the comic by Daniel Clowes. It picked up an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.
"Ghost World" is also available on DVD.
As Hollywood looks to comics for ideas, the success of films like "Road to Perdition" should insure that superheroes don't get all the attention.