Eastwood directs, stars in an imperfect 'World'

November 24, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

For sheer folly, it would be hard to match Clint Eastwood's monumentally awful and miscalculated "A Perfect World."

Whatta mess! The movie stars the two ranking icons of serious machismo in American films today, Eastwood and Kevin Costner, and doesn't even bother to bring them together until the last few seconds, where one of them is already 92 percent dead. They groggily wave at each other, share a brief passage of blubbery male bonding and then Star A goes to sleep with the fishies and Star B beats up an FBI agent who's just done the job that he himself should have been doing.

Blame this travesty on no one other than Eastwood who, after the triumphs of "Unforgiven" and "In the Line of Fire," could have made any movie he wanted. But -- as he's shown a tendency to do before, with such dogs as "The Rookie" -- he picked a loser of a script by John Lee Hancock.

It's full of contradictory impulses and discordant shifts in tone to no purpose, and finally wears out one's patience with an endless running time and virtually no suspense. At the bloody ending you feel nothing.

The story follows the tangled destinies of two men across the bleak Texas landscape of early November 1963, a year which is worked up with some care. But why? The movie never says, nor does it care, though it acknowledges portentously that "the president is coming to Dallas in a few weeks." Then it abandons that theme without a second thought.

Kevin Costner plays Butch Haynes, a professional criminal and convict, who with a buddy busts out of Texas's Huntsville prison in one of the most contrived jailbreaks on record.

Between him and the buddy (Keith Szarabajka), there's the conventional good-bad and bad-bad dynamic, a Hollywood staple from before the days of sound. The bad-bad Szarabajka cannot control his aggressive impulses and quickly tries to rape a woman; the good-bad Costner halts him, but the two decide to take her 8-year-old son Phillip (T. J. Lowther) hostage to prevent police gunfire, a crime which director Eastwood perceives as being fundamentally benign.

In fact that's a significant flaw in the film: all the way through, Costner points guns at people, kidnaps them at gunpoint, robs from them and so forth, and neither director Eastwood nor actor Eastwood, as Texas Ranger chief Red Garnett, seems anything beyond mildly perturbed by all this.

Dirty Harry doesn't understand that if you point a gun at somebody -- that's violence, whether you pull the trigger or not.

In fact crime and violence really aren't what "A Perfect World" is all about, though it's filled with them. It thinks it's about "character," although it doesn't show any. No, the true subject of the film is movie-star iconography, as we are asked to feel about the two main men in ways appropriate not to their parts in the story but to their star identities. We can't hate Butch Haynes because he's played by that "Dances With Wolves" guy.

Haynes quickly gets rid of the bad-bad buddy -- the old point blank temple shot, which director Eastwood demurely decides not to show -- and begins to roam across Texas in strange ways, bonding with the boy and giving him opportunities to do things he's never done before, like trick or treat. Isn't that special?

Meanwhile, Ol' Red Garnett is leading the manhunt, but it is certainly the most lethargic manhunt since one of Hogan's Heroes slipped out on Col. Klink. There's virtually no sense of urgency or danger or even of police culture. Garnett, a go-fer, a snippy liberal penologist played by Laura Dern and a spooky FBI sniper (guess who the bad guy is?) are trundled across pastoral landscapes in a big trailer that completely isolates them from the world at large and any sense of danger. Actor Eastwood doesn't do a thing but sit at a desk and issue puerile homilies. Dern's character appears to have time-warped back from the '90s. Meanwhile director Eastwood feels so inured from the press of time or narrative that he stops to take a nasty shot at John B. Connally, the then-governor of Texas. It takes a heap o' man to go after a dead guy.

The movie suggests nothing so much as a remake of Steven Spielberg's great 1974 debut film "The Sugarland Express" -- only this time on Quaaludes.

"Sugarland" starred Ben Johnson as the head of the Texas Highway Patrol, a character who represents the same values that Eastwood does: a professional but humane law enforcement officer who wants to minimize violence and works just as hard to discipline his own gun-happy officers as he does to capture the criminals in a cross Texas manhunt. But as an actor Eastwood hasn't a shred of the wary regret and complexity that the great Johnson conveyed. As a director he hasn't a shred of Spielberg's dynamism and sense of film storytelling.

"A Perfect World" is perfect only in one respect: It's a perfect disgrace.


"A Perfect World"

Starring Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13


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