There are some things even Tom Hanks, the man who can seemingly do anything (big man in a boy's body, AIDS-afflicted gay lawyer, buzz-cut astronaut), just can't do -- or at least, not well. For starters, the man has no game. ''Terrible basketball player,'' says the two-time Oscar winner, ticking off his inadequacies on his right hand. ''Just bad as bad can be.'' Also, if he's met you only once, try not to take it personally if he doesn't greet you properly. ''Names,'' he says. ''That thing where you can't recall the person's name, so you just fake it? That's me.'' And then there's his teeth. ''Man,'' he says, ''I wish I had better dental hygiene. That stuff comes back to haunt you.'' He smiles. His teeth look just fine. ''Believe me,'' he insists, ''we're only scratching the surface.''
On July 12, moviegoers will be able to pass judgment on one more thing Hanks may or may not have the ability to do: play a killer. The film is Road to Perdition, costarring Paul Newman and Jude Law, directed by Sam Mendes (following up his 1999 Oscar-winning debut feature, American Beauty), and produced by Richard and Dean Zanuck and Mendes. It is the summer movie season's obligatory prestige picture, the kind of august piece of Oscar bait more commonly seen in the fall. It is a stately, serious, somber film; it is not, to use Newman's words, ''a popcorn flick,'' in which ''the orgasm has to be four times as great as the last great orgasm. This picture aspires to something.''
It's also a picture in which Hollywood's ranking Mr. Nice Guy shoots people for a living. Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a foot soldier in a Depression-era Irish Mob run by John Rooney (Newman), who loves Sullivan like a son, much to the chagrin of the elderly man's increasingly unhinged biological son, Connor (Daniel Craig). One night, Sullivan's oldest boy Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) witnesses his father and Connor committing murder. Scared the boy might squeal, Connor conspires to kill the Sullivans, a betrayal that fails but leads to a tragedy that sends Michael Sullivan on a quest for vengeance, Michael Jr. in tow.
Forrest Gump this ain't. Nor is it Big, Philadelphia, or Apollo 13, films that cemented Hanks' standing as a fine actor, box office golden boy, and really nice guy. But if there was ever a movie where being known for being nice could be a liability, this is it. So the Big Question: Will audiences believe Hanks in a role summed up by Mendes as ''a bad man and a bad father, who becomes a good father, but remains a bad man''?
''There is no doubt that a degree of this 'image' is going to follow you into every gig,'' says Hanks over a light lunch of bagels, fruit, and coffee in Los Angeles in late June. ''I remember telling reporters while promoting The Green Mile, 'I will play a guy who kills people professionally for a living -- and you will say that I'm the nicest executioner ever in the movies.' Look: I am a nice guy,'' he says, laughing. Then, stabbing you with his dark eyes, he deadpans: ''At least they don't call me a pussy.''