CINEMA / All's right with Clint's World

CLINT EASTWOOD is now a better director than actor. In both jobs, he has always thrived on limitation. Clint the Malibu monolith winces and glares, while Clint the director runs genre pieces through the hoops. He may be the apotheosis of the conservative artist. But while his attempts to break out of convention as an actor have verged on the ludicrous (his huffing, wooden impersonation of John Huston in White Hunter, Black Heart), as a director he's refined and deepened his genre material. In his new film, A Perfect World (15, released next Sunday), he polishes a formulaic script to a sheen.

Kevin Costner plays Butch Haynes, an escaped convict, who takes an eight-year-old hostage (T J Lowther) and drives him through the verdant Texas countryside (his ultimate goal, like Jeff Bridges' in American Heart, is Alaska). It's 1963 (though Kennedy is only mentioned once) and the latest in police technical wizardry is a motor caravan, which Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Eastwood), hot-tempered in pursuit, uses as a mobile HQ. The police scenes are quaintly programmatic, with Laura Dern playing a criminologist - a device to get a blonde into the action. Clint bristles at her ('If you've got something in your craw, spit it out') and finally softens, in time-honoured fashion. The crowning cliche is the guilty secret tying him to Butch. Costner and scriptwriter John Lee Hancock 'worked on' Eastwood's role. You wish they hadn't bothered.

We cut between the police and the fugitives, but the heart of the script is in the relationship between Butch and the boy. The links are laid on thick. Butch, who, we've learnt from Dern, is very smart, builds a playful rapport with the child: 'Both of us is handsome devils; we both like RC Cola; and neither of us has got a dad.' They're also both yearning for freedom. The boy has been penned in by his Jehovah's Witness mother, while Butch fretted in prison. But Butch lusts for freedom without responsibility. When he tells the boy the car is a time machine, he's suggesting you can escape the prison of the here-and-now by putting your foot on the gas.

This is a difficult role for Costner. He has to build a touching relationship with the boy, while hinting at menace - to be the good guy and beyond the pale at the same time. Costner's pampered, uninteresting face gives him away. There's no twist of pain or perversity in it: even with an omnipresent fag hanging from its lip, it looks as though it should be atop a black tie. There's not a drop of danger in Costner, until he's actually doing dangerous things, towards the end of the film. And if he used any method for the role, it involved devouring double portions, since a slight paunch is as far as he slips towards dissolution.

T J Lowther as his companion hits some wrong notes, but also captures the child's solipsism and confusion - his feelings flurry between an innocent excitement and an impenetrable private sadness. He gives every sign of having been superbly directed. Eastwood showed his skill with children with his own daughter's performance in Tightrope; and that film's morally ambiguous chase is echoed in A Perfect World, as is The Gauntlet's beleaguered duo on the run. John Lee Hancock's intelligent but shameless screenplay has all bases covered: as well as the buddy stuff, we get love interest and spectacular car chases. When Costner and the boy, sleeping in the car, were awoken by a shining light, I thought we might even have a UFO.

Jack Green's photography always chimes with the mood of the film: a constant false dawn of bright skies and lush green fields, stretching out broad and promising. As the film went on, this seemed to be as much as we'd get: an overstuffed screenplay, elegantly shot. But about half an hour from the end Eastwood hits us with one of the most extraordinary scenes he's filmed, bringing the In Cold Blood theme to the boil, with a brilliant twist, in a masterpiece of tight, suspenseful editing. The final climax is not quite so well handled, and there's one moment of crude retribution, but again Eastwood steers it round, with a surprise, and releases a flood of emotion we didn't know we felt for the characters.

Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso was also about the bond between a boy and a man. Those who couldn't get enough of it - presumably most of those Guardian readers who voted it best film since 1980 - now have their wish fulfilled in Cinema Paradiso: The Special Edition (PG), which adds a further 50 minutes. You can't have too much of a good thing . . . or can you?

And when is a film complete? Cinema Paradiso joins a long line of films which, like some monstrous legion of the undead, have returned with newly sprouted limbs and gaping excisions: Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Picture Show, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Should the new versions replace the originals?

The new Cinema Paradiso suggests that the director's can be the unkindest cut of all. In the original, we see the hero, Toto, grow from a film-obsessed tot to an acclaimed director. As a boy, he falls for a beautiful young girl. The affair is fleeting, and, so far as we know, chaste, before the girl's parents quash it. The new version doesn't toy with these facts, but it fleshes them out. Unexplained loose ends from the first film are now lengthily tied up. Worst of all, in the main new sequence, the lovers meet up again in middle age and explain to each other why they acted as they did. It has the fascination of all sequels, but it merely underlines what we already intuitively knew.

It also slightly unbalances the film. The real love affair in the original is not between Toto and the girl, but between Toto and the wonderful walrusy old projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), whose life Toto saves when the projector starts an inferno. And their love feeds on a love of movies. The film held the worlds of the screen and the Sicilian town outside in delicate equilibrium. What went on in the stalls had an earthiness which contrasted with the escapism on the screen; but when Toto's love first kissed him in the projection booth, it was shot as a glorious, absurd moment of romanticism that overreached the screen fantasy. By stretching out that moment, explaining and analysing it, the film loses some of its magic.

But not all. Classic films are greater than the sum of their parts, with an aura that survives, whatever the tinkering or butchery, so that directorial perfectionism is often an overpossessive completism. Cinema Paradiso: The Special Edition is not as satisfying as its original, losing some of its fluidity and allusiveness, but it still enchants. The lesson to be drawn is in the film itself, when Alfredo tells the adolescent Toto a story about a man waiting beneath a princess's chamber for a hundred nights in order to win her hand, who abandons his vigil on the 99th night. Romantic longing is better than fulfilment - rather leave your audience hungry than sated.

This week's wooden spoon for comedy goes, after a doughty scrap, to Mel Brooks's Robin Hood: Men in Tights (PG). Cary Elwes makes a suitably weak-chinned Robin, and Roger Rees, as the Sheriff of Rottingham, has one great speech when he's told by

the evil prince John to add some fun to his glum tidings. Otherwise only the archers hit the bullseye.

Robert Townsend's Meteor Man (PG) looked set to match Mel for mirthlessness, before spluttering into comic life. Townsend, a talented black American comedian, sends up the superhero theme with a story of a good-natured teacher in a cracking-up and crack-infested Washington community, who is hit by a meteor and given superhuman powers. There are neat reversals of the usual pattern - the hero can't keep his powers a secret because his mother brags about them to all her friends - some great gags, and a who's who of black acting, including Bill Cosby. But there's also a depressing acceptance of violence as a way of life, with the happy ending delivered down the barrel of a gun.

Cinema times: Review, page 51. Zoe Heller interviews Mel Brooks: Review, page 4.