Costner Heads Northwood not Eastwood
On first glance "A Perfect World" looks like quite a normal movie, escaped prisoner takes a young boy hostage and so we have the Texas Rangers on their trail trying to catch up with them. But there is a lot more to it than that as the storyline has an almost road trip element to it as the escaped prisoner and young boy make their way across country and strangely bond with the prisoner showing a real fondness for his young hostage, treating him with respect. All of which gives us some pleasant and surprising drama as we warm to these two unlikely friends. Yet then there is also a comedy edge to things as the Texas Ranger and his team try and catch them, delivering moments of almost accident prone amusement as things don't always work, whilst the different temperaments within the team cause further issues. And these two don't feel like they should work together, the bonding drama and then the mild comedy but strangely they do and whilst "A Perfect World" ends up over long at 138 minutes it also ends up being both memorable and entertaining with depth and beauty contributing to why it is so good.
Having escaped from prison, convict Butch Haynes (Kevin Costner - JFK) and cell mate Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) go on the run and whilst looking to switch cars end up taking a young boy Phillip Perry (T.J. Lowther) hostage. As they head across country and with Terry ditched when he causes problems, Butch and Phillip begin to bond in a father and son way as Butch shows a real fondness for the young boy, teaching him what he knows about life. But hot on their trail is Texas Ranger "Red" Garnett (Clint Eastwood - In the Line of Fire) and criminologist Sally Gerber (Laura Dern - Jurassic Park) who initially don't get on but also find themselves finding a deeper respect for each other the longer the hunt goes on.
The idea of two people becoming friends as they hit the road together isn't anything new; it has been the mainstay of countless movies as we watch odd couples come to be friends through shared adversity. And so when the set up to "A Perfect World" is put in place and we watch Butch take Phillip hostage and hit the road you have a feeling that you know what is coming. You expect the young boy to grow fond of Butch who rather than being a nasty criminal acts more as a father towards the boy, protecting him when in danger and teaching him things that he has missed out on having grown up without a dad. And it is because of this bond which forms between them which elevates "A Perfect World" into being something different.
As such whilst it feels very wrong we warm to Butch as he steals, threatens and even kills as they make their way across country but we take delight in the way he treats young Phillip. And at the same time we warm to Phillip not as a victim but a young boy who finds a friend his kidnapper. All of which is born from depth of character as through their bonding we learn that they are quite similar in their raising. And we also learn that for whatever reason Butch hates any form of child abuse and takes people to task for slapping children. It makes "A Perfect World" reasonably clever because whilst we shouldn't morally warm to a criminal Butch has a surprising amount about him which is good even if he can be extreme in his dishing out of retribution.
All of which is good and this friendship and bonding is for the most light although occasionally more serious which makes the humour of the ensuing Texas Rangers feel like it should be wrong. In a way when we meet Chief "Red" Garnett as he is introduced to criminal psychologist Sally Gerber it is a throws back to the 70s and 80s with Red taking an instant dislike to having a woman on his team. And that almost 70s and 80s comedy continues as Red does what he likes from commandeering the Governor's trailer and being sarcastic to Sally till inevitably they bond. It almost seems a little heavy handed as if Clint Eastwood working as director was trying to bring a bit of Dirty Harry attitude to the character of Red. Yet at the same time it works because we go from the warmth of Butch and Phillip bonding to the humour of Red and his team trying to track them down and because we bond with Butch we almost see the ensuing law as almost the bad guys. This aspect is built upon when we learn a bit about Red's past which unsurprisingly is entangled with Butch's but also adds some depth to various characters actions.
The big reason why these strange bed fellows works is down to the characters and acting. Whether you think he is over rated or not Kevin Costner delivers plenty of charm as escaped convict Butch and it is because of this and because we can believe that he grows fond of young Phillip that we don't dislike him, in fact we feel for him because he is so kind to the young boy. And in a way because Costner makes his character work that T.J. Lowther as young Phillip also works and you get a sense of timid ness but a growing self belief as he bonds with Butch. With this pairing dominating the movie it's hard not to be charmed at the way these characters bond is a father and son style.
But Costner and Lowther are not alone as Eastwood brings his subtle humour to the roll of lawman Red, delivering something similar to that of Dirty Harry in style of sarcasm but more toned down when it comes to aggression. And those such as Laura Dern and Leo Burmester who find themselves in scenes with Eastwood almost seem to spark off of his sarcasm and general easy going demeanour.
What this all boils down to is that "A Perfect World" is an enjoyable if over long movie. It takes the almost cliche element of a road trip between two very different people and brings something different to it by giving it a father and son style of bonding. It's worked so well that whilst Costner plays a criminal we end up taking him to our hearts because he bonds with young Phillip. And to punctuate this we have Eastwood providing some mild humour as sarcastic lawman saddled with a team that he doesn't want.