Movie Reviews : A Star-Struck 'Perfect World' : Eastwood directs himself and Costner in a rare celestial pairing of today's biggest movie heroes.

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Clint Eastwood will survive "A Perfect World." Ditto for Kevin Costner, who in fact gives one of his most affecting performances. An audience's chances of staying involved, however, are not so good.

One of the pokiest chase pictures to come along in some time, "A Perfect World" (citywide) unites two of today's biggest male action heroes but can't quite figure out how to handle the largess. Not since Eastwood (who also directs) joined Burt Reynolds in "City Heat" has the Hollywood conventional wisdom that stars can sell anything been put to this kind of a test.

In theory, of course, John Lee Hancock's script about a hardened escaped convict (Costner) who finds the time while fleeing an implacable sheriff (Eastwood) to light up the life of the 7-year-old boy taken as a hostage is a lot more than a conventional chase movie.

What it is in reality, however, is a rehash of plot conventions from a slew of mismatched movies. "A Perfect World" will remind you of any number of previous films, but almost everything it attempts to do was done better the last time around.

The major exception to this is Costner's surprisingly adept performance as Butch Haines, one of those only-in-the-movies criminals who, though he's taken a few wrong turns down life's winding path, has a nobler core personality than half the craven law enforcement personnel who are tracking him down.

Imprisoned somewhere in Texas in 1963 for an unspecified crime, Butch and another convict, the ever-so-psycho Terry (Keith Szarabajka), mastermind an escape. Practically frothing at the mouth, Terry takes a break from the flight to terrorize a God-fearing group of Jehovah's Witnesses and as a result the family's young son Phillip (T.J. Lowther) is taken along for the ride.

The centerpiece of "A Perfect World" is the completely unlikely bond that develops between Butch and Phillip. On the road together, they become pals, even accomplices, as Butch, touched by tales of a restricted childhood that seems to echo his own, offers to let the lad pick his own alias and even has man-to-boy talks with him about sex and love.

As relaxed and jocular as he's ever been on screen, Costner turns Butch into the kind of interesting, enigmatic character a small boy would be fascinated with. Their relationship is oddly charming at first, but it goes nowhere and is distinctly at odds with the more muddled sensibility of the rest of the film.

Any time, for instance, we are thrust back to the command post trailer where Texas Ranger captain Red Garnett is masterminding the alleged chase, things bog down in a major way. Eastwood is not very involved in this law-and-order role, and the rest of his team (Laura Dern as the "my God, she's a woman" criminologist, Bradley Whitford as the ice-cold FBI man and Leo Burmester as Red's faithful assistant) is more cliched than those multiethnic platoons in old World War II movies.

And to remind people that yes, Butch is a dangerous escaped convict, "A Perfect World" (rated PG-13 for "violence, sexual content and language") periodically throws in some dark moments that, especially in the film's final half hour, feel increasingly arbitrary and unconvincing.

After his work in both "Unforgiven" and "In the Line of Fire," Eastwood can afford an off day on both sides of the camera as well as a reinvolvement in the kind of sentimentalism that marked "Honkytonk Man" and other films. Costner and plucky young actor Lowther do what they can with their part of this questionable story, and maybe that's all you can ask.

'A Perfect World'

Kevin Costner: Butch Haynes Clint Eastwood: Red Garnett Laura Dern: Sally Gerber T.J. Lowther: Phillip Perry Keith Szarabajka: Terry Pugh

A Malpaso production, released by Warner Bros. Director Clint Eastwood. Producers Mark Johnson, David Valdes. Screenplay John Lee Hancock. Cinematographer Jack N. Green. Editor Joel Cox, Ron Spang. Costumes Erica Edell Phillips. Music Lennie Niehaus. Production design Henry Bumstead. Art director Jack Taylor, Jr. Set decorator Alan Hicks. Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13 (violence, sexual content and language).

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