NEW YORK — `A PERFECT World'' is likely to be a solid box-office success, if only because it features two gigantic stars of two different generations - Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner - in a suspenseful story directed with controlled energy by Eastwood himself.
What's most interesting about the movie is not its cleverness as a Hollywood product, however, but the thoughtfulness of its underlying themes. ``A Perfect World'' is not an intellectual film, and it's better at suggesting ideas than exploring them. Still, it raises issues well worth pondering and shows that Eastwood remains one of Hollywood's most stimulating filmmakers.
Costner plays Butch Haynes, an uncommonly complex bad guy. After busting out of prison in the opening scene - with an accomplice so evil that even Butch despises him - he finds himself running from the law with a young boy as his hostage. Chasing after him are a Texas Ranger played by Eastwood, a rookie criminologist played by Laura Dern, and an assortment of other law-enforcement types.
Although the first hour of ``A Perfect World'' sets up a conventional cops-and-robbers chase, the movie is most resonant when it leaves the cops behind and focuses on Butch and eight-year-old Phillip, his traveling companion. Butch is a strikingly intelligent man, we discover, with a streak of independent thinking that could have made him an exceptional member of society. But in his formative years, his promising personality was trapped between two poor alternatives: home life with a viciously abusive father or prison life in a veritable school for criminals.
It's not surprising he went bad or that he harbors a lingering resentment toward the supposedly decent society that set him on this path.
Phillip reminds him of his long-ago self, especially when he learns that the boy's father has run off and his mother is raising him in a strict religious atmosphere that Butch associates with rigidity and confinement.
Phillip himself is uncertain whether Butch is a valuable friend or a dangerous foe - and the moment when this little boy must come to an irrevocable decision provides one of the film's most harrowing and startling scenes.
The point of ``A Perfect World'' is that our world is anything but. Subtly yet unmistakably, the film criticizes not only the cruelty and irrationality that are regrettable parts of Butch's makeup, but also the cruel and irrational tendencies that may lurk in ordinary households like those that produced Butch and Phillip.
This culminates in a grippingly filmed encounter between the runaways and a family that shows them hospitality without realizing they're fleeing from the law. In this family's home, casual violence and selfishness coexist with genuine love and caring. Butch's volatile reaction to this mixture is at once deeply disturbing, sadly understandable, and as provocative as anything a major Hollywood movie has offered in recent memory.
Costner gives a strong and steady performance as Butch, and Eastwood is canny enough to let him carry much of the film, relegating his own role to secondary status. Dern does her best with an underwritten part, and T.J. Lowther is marvelously expressive as the youngest of the key characters. Wayne Dehart, Mary Alice, and Kevin Woods deserve special praise as the family that takes Butch and Phillip in without guessing what awaits them.
John Lee Hancock wrote the screenplay, and Jack N. Green did the attractive cinematography, which makes the world look almost as perfect as the title ironically suggests. Joel Cox and Ron Spang edited the picture, which could have used a little more tightening - as well as trimming from its two-hour-plus running time - and Lennie Niehaus composed the score.
* ``A Perfect World'' has an R rating. It contains violence, vulgar language, and a brief scene of child sexual abuse.