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‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 14, 1991

In "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," Kevin Costner is so boyishly lightweight that it seems he'd be better equipped with a bag of fairy dust than a quiver of arrows on his back. More Peter Pan than Robin Hood, he floats his lines our way on a breeze of lazy self-assurance; it's as if he were barefoot in a hammock, blowing soap bubbles. Bull's-eye? What bull's-eye?

Built around Costner by director Kevin Reynolds, "Robin Hood" is a bent-arrow epic and much more of a chore to sit through than it should be. A big movie -- it's almost 2 1/2 hours long -- it goes wrong not in any big way, but in subtle, smaller ways. Mostly it's a matter of modulation and energy; the picture never seems to find its groove. For an adventure film, it's mighty easygoing, like an "Indiana Jones" movie without the tiger in its tank.

This iron-poor feeling, you sense, comes about partly by design, partly from exhaustion. Neither Costner nor Reynolds has a hard-sell personality; they're take-it-or-leave-it guys, and what "Robin Hood" needs is a little of the hard sell. What it needs is a little Spielberg in its soul.

It would help, too, if the movie's star would light a fire under himself and stop trying to peddle his patented brand of laconic smoke. The character, who returns to England from the Crusades to find his father dead and his home ground in the grip of the brutal sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman), is familiar enough -- and shallow enough -- that Costner needn't give a fully articulated performance. To the purple born, Robin of Locksley becomes the outlaw Robin Hood out of necessity, not by choice, and though the Pen Densham-John Watson script shovels on a layer of psychological topsoil by having Robin pledge his revenge against the sheriff for killing his father, the point is unnecessary. A superhero sketch is all we need.

The populist bent to Costner's nature, though, makes it tough for him to swallow that straight. He needs to de-mythify the folkloric thief, to turn him into a regular guy. With the Moor Azeem (Morgan Freeman), who follows Robin back to England to return the favor of saving his life, he plays the enlightened slave master, suggesting that the Muslim walk beside him and not behind him. And when Friar Tuck (Micheal McShane) addresses him as a nobleman, Robin is quick to correct him. "Don't call me 'Sire,' " he commands.

As Robin, Costner functions as a kind of Woodstock-generation antihero; he's more of a dropout than a rebel. There's a quality of stoned but carefully calculated insouciance in Costner's personality onscreen. It would be too authoritarian for him to play Robin Hood as a leader of men -- or to dominate the screen as a full-fledged star -- and so he backs away from the character's larger-than-life dimensions. He's more a scoutmaster than a prince to his band of merry archers, who are presented here as an army of pre-acid flower children engaged in militant civil disobedience against a corrupt establishment. Not only has Costner skipped an English accent, he's transformed the character into a democrat, into an American.

The movie bears the stamp of Costner's personality, not Reynolds's. The egalitarian society of thieves that grows up around this lapsed aristocrat in the forests of Sherwood is a close cousin to the communal utopia of the Sioux in "Dances With Wolves." And to extend the line a step further, to the charmed circle of corn-fed visionaries in "Field of Dreams." With "Robin Hood," Costner completes his "Green" trilogy -- from "Field of Dreams" to Forest of Dreams.

The same self-effacing lack of weight that served the star so well in "Dances With Wolves" is what undoes him here. As Robin, Costner is never less than appealing and never more. He's most vivid when he's playing a situation for laughs, even though he slips even further out of period to give his sly asides. For authority, though, we have to turn to Freeman and Rickman and, having turned, there's no going back. These are two great actors, and they steal the picture.

Rolling his eyes as if his sockets had been freshly lubed, Rickman plays the evil sheriff as if he were warming up for a burlesque production of "Richard III." Every inch as flamboyantly surreal as Jack Nicholson in "Batman," Rickman strips the gear box with his performance here; this is no-brakes, no-clutch acting. To get his wall-of-death effects, he slips out of period too, but who cares? He's priceless.

As the sagacious Azeem, Freeman couldn't be more Rickman's opposite. Where the Englishman gobbles the scenery, Freeman makes it vanish with a solemn pass of his hand. His face freckled with tattoos, Freeman is the actor as sly conjurer; without effort -- and with relatively few lines -- he's the center of attention in nearly every scene.

Not all the actors are as well-suited to their parts. As Marian, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is more kung fu master than maid. Though she is storybook beautiful, there's a sharpness to her that works completely against our image of the character; she's kind of a shrew. And as Will Scarlett, Christian Slater comes across as precisely what he is -- a callow sop to the younger audience. There are compensations for the style Reynolds has chosen; in place of grandeur and sweep, we get intimacy and offhanded humor. The question is why one should supplant the other. "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" has pomp and scale; what it lacks is something essential -- a sense of "Once Upon a Time" wonder, the exultant, heady thrill of legend.

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