Is Steve McQueen's legend safe with 'Bodyguard'?

As a movie, "The Bodyguard" isn't much, but as a ghost story, it's eerie. The ghost that haunts it belongs to Steve McQueen, whose white-jazz coolness turned him into an American icon in such films as "The Magnificent Seven," "Papillon," "The Great Escape" and the great "Bullitt" not so very long ago.

The script of "The Bodyguard" was written by a very young Lawrence Kasdan in 1975 expressly for McQueen, who was otherwise occupied, dying of cancer at the time, alas. It languished until Kevin Costner decided to do it and sponsored what appears to be a once-over-lightly rewrite to bring it up to '90s speed.


What's astounding is how perceptive Kasdan had been in understanding McQueen's quiet cool. McQueen was not an actor with range or much versatility: in his mouth, lines longer than four words turned to gobbledygook; his face had three expressions and he couldn't get from one to the other on camera. But, in action no man was more convincing, and no masculine presence in Hollywood before or since possessed such eloquent body language. And, with machines -- cars, motorcycles, guns -- McQueen was the master; if dialogue died on his lips, these tools came to magical, compelling life in his hands.

And how does Costner do as McQueen? Not so bad. In fact, I enjoyed his wary samurai detachment and his capacity for quick, savage violence a lot more than the touchy-feely gropings of his recent work. Costner's Frank Farmer wouldn't dance with wolves, he'd shoot them.


In fact, so modeled upon the McQueen presence is the Costner imitation that he's had his hair sculpted in tribute to McQueen's bangy Caesar style, and he wears the same dour suits McQueen sported in "The Getaway," baggy garments whose very squareness and the utter confidence with which they are worn make him even cooler.

And make no mistake: "cool" - the concept of Zenlike grace and competence under mortal pressure -- is exactly what "The Bodyguard" is all about. Costner plays ex-Secret Service agent Farmer as a laconic stud-for-hire who rents out to do short, high-intensity work for powerful people in dire straits. He is very good. Alas, the plot is somewhat dim.

Kasdan sets him in the presence of a willful and spoiled super-star entertainer, played by Whitney Houston. Think Diana Ross or Barbra Streisand. Add assorted underlings, strumpets, PR scrounges and video directors. The underlying idea is very '70s: that in a decadent milieu, full of treacherous girly-men and delicate art-weenies, the bodyguard's stoic presence is so powerful it quickly woos the spoiled woman to him. Thus he must not only deal with his professional obligations but with some emotional ones as well.

There's also an odor of "Taming of the Shrew" blowing through the film that has an uncomfortable vibration of misogyny to it. Costner's reserve and competence -- and single night of sexual athleticism -- somehow saves Houston's Rachel Marren from the bitchier components in her own personality. In one ludicrous sequence, she even travels to his dad's cabin and puts her high-voltage ego on the shelf enough to allow herself to be just folks. And his masculine ministrations also make her a better mother to a young son who admires Costner.

Now and then Costner and Houston have a zingy exchange, though generally the relationship seems pretty tepid. When Costner pops into action -- Houston is being stalked by a psycho who sends her warning notes and a professional killer -- he's quite convincing. But generally the piece misses so much more than it accomplishes.

The inside-Hollywood stuff might have worked back in the '70s but certainly not now, in the '90s, when we've actually been "inside Hollywood" on "Entertainment Tonight" every stinking night, with real stars instead of absurd parallel celebrities like "Tom Poston," the hero of "West of Waco." Worse, director Mick Jackson delivers a prosaic final confrontation between Costner and the veiled killer.

Poor McQueen. Let's hope where he is, it's all cool jazz, Harleys, sleek catlike women who don't talk much so he won't have to, and no VCRs, so he'll never see what's become of his legend.



'The Bodyguard'

Starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston.

Directed by Mick Jackson.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R.

** 1/2