July 19, 1982 12:00 PM

Griffin O’Neal, 17, Ryan’s son and Tatum’s brother, is superbly freckled and nonchalant as a smalltown kid hooked on the legend of his dead father, “the greatest escape artist who ever lived, after Houdini.” The kid is driven to emulate his dad’s tricks (helped by his wacky aunt and uncle, Joan Hackett and Gabriel Dell, who have a struggling magic show). Along the way Griffin becomes a smooth picker of locks and pockets, and lifts a wallet crammed with $100 bills from Raul Julia, the son of the town’s mayor. The mayor is played by Desi Arnaz the elder, in his first film in 26 years. The heist sets in motion an effortlessly eccentric, absorbing series of plot turns. Julia persuades the boy to pull off some jobs for him, including cracking his own father’s safe. Kids will take particular delight in the affable O’Neal as he hot-wires a Caddy and locks himself inside a mailbox to flee a knife-wielding Julia. The film, scripted by Stephen Zito and Melissa (E.T.) Mathison from David Wagoner’s novel, is deftly directed by Caleb Deschanel. Arnaz is wonderful as the corrupt mayor; Julia is just right as his nutty, good-for-nada son. And the debut of O’Neal gives this little gem of a film a special magic. (PG)

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