Stranded In Sherwood Forest

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ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES Directed by Kevin Reynolds

Screenplay by Pen Densham and John Watson

Kevin Costner as Robin Hood. Modern Hollywood's most likable star playing medieval England's most engaging hero -- this is a parlay that sets moguls dancing. Its ostensibly canny match of star and subject assures that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves will fill theaters. But will it send moviegoers out enthralled? The message from this cracked crystal ball is: Naaah.

Granted, the picture has the makings. With a series of improbable hits, Costner has proved he can make huge audiences care about dead baseball players and gentle folks who speak Sioux. And the Robin Hood saga is very nearly perfect for movies: a thrilling adventure, a love story, a dream of nobility turned to common good. Robin of Locksley, that ancient and up-to-date people's hero, defends England against Norman predators and robs the rich to give to the poor.

The Robin Hood films are, of course, not about a Norman-Saxon feud or the equitable redistribution of goods. They are about star quality. The mythic Robin Hood is a figure of strength, grace, wit and humanity. He radiates moral self-confidence. He is a fellow's best friend and a woman's dream lover. He personifies what in simpler times was called masculinity. No wonder the role lured some of the cinema's top exemplars of derring-do. Douglas Fairbanks (1922), Errol Flynn (1938) and Sean Connery (1976) made memorable glosses on the English lord -- and no matter that the actors hailed, respectively, from Colorado, Tasmania and Scotland. Fairbanks soared, Flynn grinned, Connery smoldered, and each struck singular movie sparks.

Today, when dour antiheroes have glutted the market, Robin Hood is again the good guy of choice. Just last month Fox TV aired a new version, directed by John Irvin and starring Patrick Bergin. That Robin Hood is no instant classic. Its action scenes consist mostly of guys milling outside castles and roaring like juiced-up fans at a Midlands football match. But Bergin does invest the woodsman from the 1190s with a bit of 1990s Green Power. Waging guerrilla war against the ravagers of Sherwood Forest, Bergin is at one with his sylvan surroundings -- a butch Bambi.

In Costner's larger, busier take on the legend, the only green power is at the box office. With a sigh, the script reprises Robin's recruiting of his Merry Men (a pallid crowd here), his verbal jousting (uninspired), his romance with Maid Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, her wondrous screen potential again untapped). The movie treats these plot points as tiresome requirements, not chances to work fresh alchemy on old elements. At 2 hours 20 minutes, the enterprise lacks passion, or even a sense of inspired fun; it is as if the filmmakers were dutifully honoring business commitments. Wading through the torpid spots, director Kevin Reynolds seems like a restless kid -- or, maybe, like the audience -- impatient to get on with the swashbuckling.

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