A masterfully made film which punches and hits directly. This is what film is supposed to be about, by which I don't necessarily mean the topic, but refer to the craft with which this fine-tuned feature is made. Director Barry Levinson takes an all-star cast and delivers a true story that captures its audience with a heart-rending tale.

This is a story of lost innocence. Lost violently and tragically and all too soon in the life of four young boys. Hell's Kitchen is one of those areas in New York City where the law used to be vigorously and strictly maintained within the confines of the neighborhood itself. Gangsters and priests inhabited the same world, although they operated in different ways and with different powers. Kids would roam the city streets and get into their own kind of trouble. That's part of growing up in New York and it was the same for Lorenzo (Joe Perrino), Michael (Brad Renfro), John (Geoff Wigdor), and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker). One summer day, however, an unexpected event took place that would start a chain reaction that changed the rest of their lives. Bored and with nothing much to do, the kids decide to swipe a hot-dog and wind up almost killing a man. Sentenced to do time in an upstate N.Y. reform school, they are unaware of the horrors that await them. Once trapped inside an institution that offers them absolutely no protection, they are tortured, abused, and raped repeatedly by guards under the leadership of Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon).

Eleven years later, John (Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy Crudup), whose damaged lives have remained in downward spiral, recognize the face of Nokes in a local restaurant and take advantage of this moment for their long-awaited revenge. Afterwards, they are taken into custody and the dominoes begin to fall once again. Michael (Brad Pitt), who has become a lawyer working for the D.A., had already begun devising a plan of revenge some years before. Although present circumstances will call for several revisions, the action has already begun and Michael has no intention of turning back. Contacting Lorenzo (Jason Patric) to ask for his help, the path toward their final personal justice begins. Michael's plan could possibly endanger and destroy the lives both he and Lorenzo have spent the years building up, but their need to even the scores knows no bounds. The past and the future collide head-on as the two main protagonists remain the only characters fully aware of all the elements in play. The neighborhood code must still apply if they are to carry the caper off and close this awful and painful chapter from their past.

When Ferguson (Terry Kinney), who was one of the guards at the school, appears in court to attest to the solid reputation of the murdered Nokes, he is unexpectedly confronted with his own guilt for the past. He has since moved on to a model middle-class lifestyle as a policeman, including wife and children. He breaks down in tears as a result of 'clever' manipulation and the unexpected confrontation accompanied by his tortuous self- reflection. In a film filled with engrossing and plausible moments, this crucial scene remains unconvincing (despite Kinney's performance) and, although it doesn't really come off as probably intended, it also doesn't break the weave of the rest of the film.

Superb points to the entire cast, especially Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt, and Jason Patric. (Kevin Bacon hasn't been as nasty as this since his memorable portrayal in 'Forty Deuce.') Superb points as well to the child counterparts. Although every technical aspect has carefully been considered under director Levinson's hand, there must unquestionably be a special mention for Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus, whose work is always striking on screen. Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman appear in small (,but not that small) cameos which are, naturally, set down perfectly, but which allow little room for embellishment. (The one exception being the CU of DeNiro while he listens to Patric's sorrowful tale of revelation, during which time he manages to take us through the different levels and layers of the priest, troubled and tormented by the varying aspects and repercussions, responsibilities and resolutions involved in this matter and any action he should take regarding it. No mean trick.)

Beyond the sordid story of child abuse lies a strong testament to friendship and all that entails; a beneath-the-skin impulse between people that, although intangible, endures. True hopelessness is only really found among the forsaken.

Our present-day world requires shocking revelations (such as those exposed in the case involving the Belgian Dutroux) to spread a general awareness among the public regarding the vast expanse of child abuse. The bandwagon-jumping of the obsessive that often result from such sudden shocks is often shallow and accompanied only by temporary concern. Most would prefer violent entertainment instead; you can switch that off-and-on. Child abuse is nothing new in our world and has deserved wide- spread attention long before now. The fact that, to cite one example among many, several Dutch and Belgian commercial TV stations have recently begun to bombard the screens with programs containing related or relevant information (including classics like 'Adam' and 'Il Ladro di Bambini') is not a testament to any heightened social-awareness among production companies, but rather, unfortunately, a heightened awareness of methods for increased ratings. They still don't use milk cartons on this side of the water; not that the statistics are any better than the other side. The world, I fear, continues to hide skeletons in closets, cellars, and crawl spaces. This film tries to drag some out into the open.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett