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by MICK LLOYD-OWEN & r & & r & Lonely Hearts & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & aymond Fernandez (Jared Leto) is a soulless, silver-tongued con man who finds rich women and war widows via personal ads in "lonely hearts" magazines, convinces them that they've finally found their soul-mate, acquires their savings and then moves on to his next victim. One of his marks, Martha Beck (Salma Hayek), turns out to be a gorgeous, intelligent, basket-case of a woman -- used and abused since childhood -- who quickly figures him out and joins him in order to take her revenge on hopeful lovers everywhere. Fernandez and Beck fall into a twisted love-hate relationship in which she poses as his sister to help his scheme, forming a Bonnie-and-Clyde team who exploit their victims and then murder them.

Lonely Hearts is based on a true story from the 1940s.

Haunted by his wife's mysterious suicide, street-wise homicide detective Elmer Robinson (John Travolta) is pining away behind a paper-piled desk, having lost his zeal for crime fighting. When he winds up on a case involving a seemingly inexplicable suicide of a young woman, he becomes dangerously invested. Warned by his partner (James Gandolfini) that there is no case for murder and that his objectivity is suspect, the two soon find themselves on the bloody trail of the "lonely hearts" killers.

Travolta's character -- the real-life grandfather of writer and director Todd Robinson -- is morose and vulnerable, yet possessed of inner strength. Travolta and Gandolfini each have a strong presence on the screen, and together they deliver a powerful performance. Leto and Hayek play their sociopathic roles brilliantly while keeping the characters disturbingly believable. Cinematography, costuming and period-replication are first-rate. If Lonely Hearts has a weakness, it's that Robinson's character development and the impetus for his personal mission are unclear. His story is not quite compelling enough to compete with the bizarre drama of his quarry. Overall, the film is engaging and well produced. It's curious that it slipped under the radar, showing locally only at the Coeur d'Alene Film Festival. Maybe the DVD release will awaken interest in this box-office sleeper. (Rated R)

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