CHICAGO – Tom Hanks has killed before.
Forget the life-is-a-box-of-chocolates guy. Or Seattle’s single who was as cuddly as an oversized stuffed bear. Or the man-child who danced across a giant piano, lighting each key with a footstep.
“I killed a lot of Nazis over there in Normandy,” he says, recalling his role in “Saving Private Ryan.”
Of course, of course.
But there’s another seedy turn in Hanks’ cinematic past.
Remember “Turner & Hooch”? Probably not. In 1989, Hanks played a detective (with a neatness obsession) alongside the ugly but lovable mutt Hooch. When Hooch is killed – the dog was, sigh, a murder witness – Hanks responded with deadly seriousness.
“I killed the guy who shot Hooch,” he recalls, his voice filled with comic bravado.
That’s significant because on Friday, moviegoers will need a bigger leap of father: Hanks plays an Irish mafia hitman. His unsmiling, stern character causes beefy henchmen to shake like leaves during a thunderstorm in the stunning drama “The Road to Perdition.”
Set in Chicago circa 1931, the film features Hanks carrying a gun as faithfully as he clung to that volleyball in “Cast Away.”
And he kills. A lot.
The summer’s most bold mainstream movie offering, “Road to Perdition” isn’t a typical gangster film. It takes several steps away from the genre to veer into dramatic turf. At its core, “Perdition” is a father-and-son flick with divine secrets expressed during a bank robbery spree.
Hanks also has the good fortune to surround himself with a stellar lineup, including Paul Newman, Jude Law and Stanley Tucci.
In Chicago recently, Hanks, who turns 46 Tuesday, delivers an expert performance about how to be a humble superstar when in public. At the Chicago Theater, where “Perdition” had its premiere June 25, Hanks pauses several minutes in wilting heat for each camera crew, local and national, to provide a soundbite.
In the lobby, TV’s “Entertainment Tonight” holds its interview space. Hanks enters the theater to thunderous applause. He quiets the crowds and shouts, “When I point, say, ‘E.T.’”
A moment later, he points and everyone screams “E.T.” In a blink, Hanks has given the “info-tainment” show a clip it can broadcast repeatedly.
The next day in Chicago’s ultra-swanky Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Hanks spends 20-plus minutes at tables of eight print reporters each.
From the start, he is asked about taking the “Perdition” role, a departure from his previous efforts.
At first Hanks is silly: “Well, it was time to go to work and ‘The Love Boat’ is not on the air anymore.”
Then he is funny in a Hollywood insider way: “Every time you take a job, everybody’s trying to figure out, ‘What’s the strategy behind him taking this? What does this mean?’” (His voice rises.) “‘That diabolical genius: What is he up to?’”
And, finally, he is honest and direct: “It has those cinematic elements of a (gangster) movie – you know, the cars, the hats, the setting – that was attractive on one level. But it’s much more universal and timeless with father-and-son relationships. I had never seen it before and, believe me, I read a lot of scripts out there.”