HOLLYWOOD, July 23 (UPI) -- Tom Hanks is one of a select fraternity of performers who is both superstar and distinguished actor. The two seldom go together.
He has joined the company of Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda. It's an exclusive club consisting of men who have mastered the craft of acting while assembling massive numbers of admirers of superb creativity.
Even among these giants, few have been so brilliantly versatile: "Forrest Gump," "Cast Away," "The Green Mile," "Philadelphia," "Sleepless in Seattle," "Apollo 13" and "Big."
Like Tracy, Stewart and Fonda, Hanks has endeared himself to Americans as one of their own, playing men on screen who cope, and often predominate.
Certainly much of what Hanks has accomplished is done with mirrors -- with the aid of screenwriters, directors and editors. But in the final analysis it is his persona, the aura he projects as a strong-willed male in his own time and place that makes the world better by his presence.
And in his new sensational box-office hit "The Road to Perdition" Hanks is at the top of his game portraying a cold-blooded killer for organized crime, an unsympathetic role he has transformed into a personal masterpiece of acting.
As Michael ("The Angel of Death") Sullivan, Hanks plays an assassin for Irish gang lord Con Rooney (Paul Newman) in 1931.
So thoroughly convincing is Hanks' performance as a menacing killer and a caring, loving husband and father of two sons, he should win his third Academy Award for best actor.
He already holds two Oscars, for performances as the simple-minded "Forrest Gump" and the lawyer-AIDs victim in "Philadelphia," two roles that testify to Hanks' astonishing versatility.
Those parts are entirely unlike his role of hit-man Sullivan. He is an altogether different man -- a different-looking man -- in all three films.
Gump was an innocent hero; lawyer Andrew Beckett was a victim; killer Sullivan is a sullen, silent loser.
All are memorable, unforgettable.
Hanks' heroic Capt. John Miller ("Saving Private Ryan"), Josh Baskin, a young boy in a man's body ("Big") and drunken baseball manager Jimmy Dugan ("A League of Their Own") were extraordinary individuals.
Hanks possesses an actor's greatest gift, the ability to totally lose himself in his roles yet continue to convey his personal essence in a tiny proportion.
Unlike many another actor playing against type as a ruthless tough guy, Hanks never for a moment swaggers as the brutal Sullivan.
He uses his deadly weapons with unerring proficiency, with the skill of a carpenter at his lathe or a plumber with his wrench -- without emotion but with glacial finesse.
His expressionless face is reflected in his limited body language; the slumped shoulders, menacing walk and indifferent reaction to his murderous calling.
Nor does Sullivan change his personality in expressing his unspoken love for his wife and young sons.
Audiences are spellbound watching this "dead man" Sullivan going through the motions of living, seemingly without any sort of emotion.
There are reasons and explanations for Sullivan's zombie persona, his almost mechanical passage through life, unaware of the havoc that follows in his wake.
His is a numbing performance, more frightening than all the slasher movies ever made, more terrorizing than, say, Hannibal Lecter.
Can this be the same actor who played detective Scott Turner in "Turner & Hooch" or the lovable bungler Alan Bauer in "Splash"?
No, it could not. There is no bravura in Sullivan, no joy, no pomposity, no sense of fair play.
He is a silent proponent of death, a clinical killer with deadly intent who uses his life to create chilling doom ordered by his surrogate father Rooney, a Newman performance that rates an Oscar for best supporting actor.
In their few scenes together, Hanks and Newman create unforgettable images of two of the most powerful actors of their time playing men of implacable criminality that make previous crime films pale by comparison.
Thanks in large part to Tom Hanks' performance, the "Road to Perdition" takes all the stimulation out of violence and killing.
Perdition, the name of a town in this picture, is a synonym for hell and demonstrates what hell can be to a man whose calling is murder.
There is nothing romantic, nothing honorable, nothing glamorous nor exciting about dark, calculated murder run amok.
It is ugly, vile and demeaning to the nth degree and totally without redemption or rationale.
Tom Hanks, in his finest hour on the screen, brings home that message without saying it. His flawless characterization does all the talking necessary.