ROBIN HOOD PRINCE OF THIEVES Adventures dither, dawdle and finally deliver


Like a famous timepiece, the timeless piece that is the Robin Hood legend can take a licking and keep on ticking.

The latest parvenus to deliver a licking are the two American Kevins, Costner and Reynolds, who have hastily cobbled together "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves," to much fame and anticipation and at a $50 million price tag. It has a lot of things wrong with it but in the end, the old story is so strong that it transcends the degradations; it keeps on ticking.

The fundamental problem with the film, however, is that before Costner's Rob-Rob-Robin starts bob-bob-bobbin' along, the movie dithers and dawdles. Didn't anybody notice the story hadn't started until halfway through hour two?

It begins in a cheesy dungeon set that looks more like a "Saturday Night Live" parody than anything; here, in an incoherent murk of action, the very hairy Costner and the very stately Morgan Freeman escape from dastardly Arab tormentors, thus beginning director Reynolds' only significant revision of the story, which is to provide Robin with a new and politically correct sidekick.

In short order the two are in Merrie Olde England and for about an hour and a half the film shunts through Robin high points, with ironic commentary by Freeman, whose scimitar is not as sharp as his wit. Thank god for him, though. Without him, and a flamboyantly campy turn by the professional British villain Alan Rickman (of the original "Die Hard,") as the Sheriff of Nottingham, what we'd have is one big turkey.

Costner isn't much help. He's more like the boy from Ipanema than a mythic Saxon. I kept expecting him to break out with, "M-I-C/ K-E-Y/Why? Because we love you/ M-O-U-S-EEEEEEEEE." Everything that has worked so brilliantly in his other performances -- his very American-ness, his sense of ordinary decency, his boyish likability -- is a liability here. The accent decision -- he tries for British -- is a complete catastrophe. He sounds like a grade-school Vaughn Meader doing a third-rate JFK imitation. Entirely too callow for anybody's good, he lacks the great Errol Flynn's almost feline physical grace and authority. He's a kid.

It's as if Reynolds, too, understands that nothing is happening in the story; thus the first hour and a half of "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves" is about camera work. If you can do it with a camera, Reynolds does it in "Robin Hood." Zooms, pans, sweeps, tilts; it should have been called "Dances with Cameras."

Meanwhile, we slog through unconvincing versions of the stafmeeting Robin holds with Little John at the river (now a raging rapids; everything is bigger in this movie), various flirtations with newly promoted Lady Marian (the exquisite and excellent Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio); witty asides by Freeman; and Rickman's scenery-chewing escapades.

Finally having established its players in an arboreal utopia in deepest Sherwood, in a lifestyle somewhat similar to that of George Lucas' Ewoks, the movie actually begins. It's almost too late. But it's not.

In a fit of desperation, the sheriff brings in the Celtics. The Boston Celtics? No, not Larry Bird, but that is a funny idea. Rather the Celtic Celts, offered as a kind of medieval Delta Force by way of "Conan the Barbarian," who make a guest appearance in Sherwood and turn the movie, briefly, into "Conan the Barbarian" and then "Backdraft" by attacking Robin's lair and then burning it.

But from this moment till it ends, "Robin Hood" finally acquires the kind of energy and authority it has needed for so long. Freed from the tyranny of actually "acting," Costner is able to give his Robin the directness that the performance has lacked. Moreover, his stuntmen earn every farthing, especially the guy who does a jump-fall off the castle roof and rides a convenient banner down through the air until he crashes a stain-glass window. Great stunt, bub!

Reynolds, meanwhile, who made his reputation as an action director (he did the underrated "Beast," about a Soviet tank in Afghanistan) is able to sling together the various sword fights and pitched battles with a fair degree of efficiency.

The plotting is still somewhat obscure. The screenplay by Pen Desham and John Watson really fails to make completely clear the fulcrum of the final sequence, which turns on the sheriff's need to impregnate Marian, a niece of the missing king, in order to legitimatize his own claim to the crown. For bizarre reasons, the traditional character of Prince John has been done away with completely.

In the end, and only just barely, "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves" delivers the goods, chiefly on the power of a thumpingly vibrant last 40 minutes and some excellent swordplay choreography. Yet it's a sad commentary on the dismal level of imagination that has ruled the movie that its real emotional climax has nothing to do with the movie itself. It's a surprise glimpse of Sean Connery's face.

'Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves'

Starring Kevin Costner and Alan Rickman.

Directed by Kevin Reynolds.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2

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