Daniel Craig’s Best Movie Made Him A Pathetic Bad Guy
Daniel Craig's best movie role was as a pathetic villain in Road to Perdition.
When Daniel Craig accepted the role of James Bond, he also accepted the fact that this single role would define his career in the movie business forever. With the arguable exception of Sean Connery’s original, every actor to take on the mantle of 007 has had their other work overshadowed by the iconic spy franchise, though Craig’s Knives Out series is working overtime to avoid that fate. Daniel Craig’s finest movie performance came just a few years before his first outing as James Bond, in 2002’s Road to Perdition, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Road to Perdition is an adaptation of a 1998 graphic novel by prolific mystery writer Max Allan Collins, starring Tom Hanks as merciless, stony mob enforcer Michael Sullivan during the Great Depression. The film was directed by Sam Mendes, high off the Academy Award success of 1999’s American Beauty, who turned down both Oscar-bait like A Beautiful Mind and less successful fare like the Kevin Spacey science fiction movie K-PAX in order to make a grim, bleak revenge story about tortured men. Mendes would later go on to direct Daniel Craig in his most acclaimed James Bond movie, Skyfall, and the less well beloved Spectre, but in their first work together, Craig could not be more different than 007.
Whereas Daniel Craig has come to be viewed as the face of effortlessly cool movie competence as James Bond (and a pretty good dancer, too), Road to Perdition basically portrays him as a pathetic screw-up. In the film, he portrays Connor Rooney, the son of aging mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman in his final live-action theatrical role), who despite his blood ties and position in his father’s organization, cannot help but be jealous of Tom Hanks. While Connor Rooney (Craig) might be the actual son of John Rooney (Newman), it is clear to everyone in the movie (but spoken by none) that the boss views his trusted enforcer as closer to his heart than anyone else.
The actual plot of Road to Perdition is as simple as a revenge drama needs to be: Tom Hanks’ young son Michael Jr. (future Superman Tyler Hoechlin) witnesses Daniel Craig killing a man. Though the death can be easily covered up by his father, Daniel Craig is either too wary or too foolish to trust in others and arranges for the unsanctioned death of the Sullivan family. Tom Hanks and Tyler Hoechlin take to the road and the path of revenge, pursued by Jude Law as an assassin with an unnerving habit of photographing his victims’ corpses.
Both the film version and novel version of Road to Perdition are heavily influenced by Lone Wolf and Cub, the epic samurai revenge manga by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, with Collins calling it an “unabashed homage.” Like the earlier story, Road to Perdition primarily deals with the bond between father and son, the spiritual toll that revenge takes on a person, and the Shakespearian tragedy of cyclical violence. In transporting the action to 1930s America, Sam Mendes merely updated a story that is chillingly eternal.
In many ways, both Tom Hanks and Daniel Craig are playing against the best-known versions of themselves in this movie. Daniel Craig would not fully develop his suave movie persona for a few years yet, and his Connor Rooney is practically the antithesis of James Bond. Though he is just as handsome as Bond (and born into far better circumstances), Connor Rooney is a man who practically vibrates with resentment and low self-esteem.
He resembles no other movie character so much as John Cazale’s doomed Fredo Corleone in The Godfather saga: born to princedom, burdened with the knowledge of his own incompetence, and frustrated by receiving his father’s love, but not his respect.
For his part, Tom Hanks is playing against every warm instinct that made him America’s Dad to play a very different kind of father. As Michael Sullivan, he is a man who has been so hardened by his violent work that he cannot connect with his child to any meaningful degree but is inwardly desperate that he does not become a man like himself. In the end, Road to Perdition is a movie about sons and the fathers that fail them, whether it is a sad and pathetic man like Connor or a deadly and distant one like Michael.