Dir: Steven Spielberg. US. 2002. 140mins (TBC)

Steven Spielberg's customary polish graces the Christmas Day domestic release of Catch Me If You Can, another accomplished, somewhat soulless offering from the world's most famous director which is set to steal a large chunk of box office change from the world's multiplex screens in the next few months. Based on the autobiography of Frank W Abagnale, Catch Me If You Can chronicles Abagnale's teenage years in the 1960s when he ran away from home, passed himself off as an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and a college professor and made millions in fraudulent cheques. He was pursued across America and France by FBI agent Carl Hanratty who eventually caught up with him in a French jail and organised his extradition back to the US.

Lavishly authentic in its depiction of the US in the 1960s, Catch Me If You Can is fast-paced, stylish and entertaining and boasts a wildly charismatic performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale from the age of 16 upwards. DiCaprio, more exciting to watch here than in Gangs Of New York, confirms his super-star status as Frank, exuding the vitality, panache and charm which the real-life Abagnale employed to swindle and deceive.

Behind Abagnale's criminal bravado lay the failure of his father's business and the end of his parents' marriage. Christopher Walken is on strong form as Abagnale Sr - a mild conman himself whose resentment of the IRS and the bureaucracy for foiling his plans for greatness fuel his son's penchant for deception.

Spielberg dwells on the family angle, of course, and makes Tom Hanks' Hanratty both Abagnale's pursuer and his surrogate father. While he cannot quite resist glamourising the multiple felonies of young Frank, it is that all-American sense of family and moral rectitude - as embodied once again by Hanks - with which the director imbues the material. We even know Abagnale's fate at the film's opening, just in case we were to feel impressed by his achievements along the way. It is an anaesthetising approach and one which takes the amoral sting out of the playful story: Abagnale, after all, is seizing and living the American dream which his father was unable to realise, and, hoodwinked by his looks and seductiveness, nobody sees through him - for some years at least.

But if the film is not as playful as it could be, Spielberg's unambiguous sense of justice - Abagnale is corrected by the film's end and stays on the straight and narrow from then on - is what will make Catch Me If You Can such a box-office "must-see", among families as well as adults. Rated PG-13 in North America, its reactionary heart is just what US audiences respond to at Christmastime (while thrilling vicariously at Abagnale's affrontery).That, along with the star wattage of DiCaprio and Hanks and some sexy marketing opportunities (the trailer is one of the best of the year).

International audiences will also be wooed by Catch Me If You Can and its glossy finish: lush production values, hip 1960s costumes, gorgeous colourful cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and an uncharacteristic, catchy jazz score by John Williams.

Too long, like most of Spielberg's films of late, the film kicks off in France as Hanratty discovers Abagnale rotting away in prison and then turns the clock back six years to Abagnale's discovery that his mother (Baye, fine in an English-language role) is cheating on his beloved dad and his escape from home. From then on, we follow Abagnale as he buys a pilot's uniform and begins his life of deception, which includes insight into cheque forgery of the time and some amusing sexual escapades with the likes of model cum hooker Jennifer Garner (from TV's Alias) and Amy Adams, who plays Louisiana nurse Brenda Strong to whom Abagnale gets engaged while posing as a doctor.

Come Oscar time, DiCaprio and Walken stand the best chances of snaring acting nods, while Spielberg and his production team could also be recognised.

Prod cos: The Kemp Company, Splendid Pictures, Parkes/MacDonbald, DreamWorks Pictures
Worldwide dist:
DreamWorks SKG/UIP
Exec prods:
Barry Kemp, Laurie MacDonald, Michel Shane, Tony Romano
Steven Spielberg, Walter F Parkes
Jeff Nathanson, from the book by Frank W Abagnale with Stan Redding
Janusz Kaminski
Prod des:
Jeannine Oppewall
Michael Kahn
John Williams
Main cast:
Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Nathalie Baye, Amy Adams, James Brolin, Jennifer Garner