MOVIE REVIEW : 'Robin': Medieval Dash, New Age Muddle : The $50-million epic remake tries to please everyone and winds up an overlong jumble of action, preaching and comic antics.

TIMES FILM CRITIC

The ads have got it wrong. Kevin Costner very definitely isn't "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," and his noticeable awkwardness in that rebel's role underlines the problems this muddled, fitfully effective version of a most durable English legend has in deciding which face it wants to present to the world at large.

Like the creators of many another big-budget summer film, the makers of the $50-million-but-who's-counting "Robin Hood" (citywide) clearly lived in fear that there was some segment of the mass audience they might not be reaching. So they covered themselves by making not one but three different movies, cobbling them together with the fond hope that everyone within the sound of Time-Warner's powerful voice would find a little something to their taste.

Not for nothing has the legend of the noble 12th-Century brigand who robbed the rich to pay the poor and still found time for a little smooching on the side been made into a movie no fewer (and quite possibly more) than eight times. This version, though it breaks with tradition by starting with Robin of Locksley as a jailed crusader in Jerusalem, pretty much follows the well-trod, crowd-pleasing path of its predecessors as far as plot is concerned. In short order, Robin returns home to find the good people of the neighborhood under the awful thumb of the effortlessly evil Sheriff of Nottingham, who is raking in the cash and leering at Maid Marian while good King Richard the Lionheart is unavoidably detained overseas.

At minimum, this story (made even more familiar by the '50s TV series) of how Robin aligns himself with rebellious Sherwood Forest types like Little John, Will Scarlett and Friar Tuck allows for a fearsome variety of action sequences, everything from swordplay to archery to the kind of acrobatic derring-do that showed off actors Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn (who made the two most celebrated large-screen versions) to their best advantage.

And of the trio of films that make up this newest "Robin Hood," easily the most successful is the traditional, action-oriented one. Swords parry and thrust, grown men leap defiantly through the air, arrows both flaming and otherwise get shot all over the place, all to a stirring Michael Kamen score that insists we feel excited whether we want to or not.

Costner, who apparently spent long hours on his tennis court (no kidding) training with a variety of formidable weapons, is not to be trifled with when he has a bow and arrow in his hands. Unfortunately, not very much of this borderline interminable, 2-hour-and-23-minute movie finds him so equipped. The rest of the time he is wrestling with Pen Densham and John Watson's movie-medieval I-will-not-rest-until-my-father-is-avenged dialogue, which sounds predictably stilted on his lips.

More than Costner's speech patterns are off-kilter for Robin Hood; his very on-screen persona turns out to be not bold or charismatic enough to be a convincing outlaw king. His Robin is the doofiest yet put on film; it is almost impossible to accept him as a leader of men. Costner plays the dread desperado of Sherwood Forest like a Deadhead on a spiritual quest--a tack which, while quite well suited to his successful roles in "Field of Dreams" and "Dances With Wolves," is much too gee-whiz to work here.

It is not only Costner who is intent on making this a New Age Robin Hood; the writers have designs in that area as well. They have not only given poor Robin a variety of Up With People speeches about courage, justice, and tolerance, they have made Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) a strong woman who can pretty much take care of herself and turned the Merry Men multicultural by giving Robin a Moorish sidekick named Azeem (the estimable Morgan Freeman) he conveniently liberated during that time in Jerusalem.

While it is not necessarily a bad idea, albeit a curious one, to have a politically correct Robin Hood, the filmmakers have not been able to manage it gracefully. Marian goes back and forth between being feisty and fluttering her eyelashes, and ends up getting inexplicably misty-eyed at the sight of our hero's undraped rear end. And though Freeman does a matchless job as Azeem, making him a compleat paragon of knowledge, virtue and common sense who can even deliver babies should the need arise is laying on the positive thinking thicker than good sense should have indicated.

As if this weren't confusing enough, there is yet a third movie lurking in this PG-13 "Prince of Thieves," a kind of Robin-Hood-meets-Monty-Python that features Alan Rickman as a comic-relief Sheriff of Nottingham who oozes toxicity like a barrel of sludge from Three Mile Island. Presumably aided and abetted by director Kevin Reynolds--whose motto, judged by his previous work in "Fandango" and "The Beast," appears to be that anything worth doing is worth overdoing--Rickman is funny enough, but his clowning has the regrettable effect of making him useless as a credible villain, severely crippling that side of the film.

As for the idea of action heroes trading witticisms like Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, that has gotten very old very fast. While the makers of "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" may have set out to bury the poor old duffer of Sherwood Forest in a welter of trendy banter, they have ended up burying themselves as well.

'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves'

Kevin Costner: Robin of Locksley

Morgan Freeman: Azeem

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio: Marian

Christian Slater: Will Scarlett

Alan Rickman: Sheriff of Nottingham

A James G. Robinson presentation of a Morgan Creek production, released by Warner Bros. Director Kevin Reynolds. Producers John Watson, Pen Densham and Richard B. Lewis. Executive producers James G. Robinson and David Nicksay & Gary Barber. Screenplay Pen Densham & John Watson. Cinematographer Doug Milsome, B.S.C. Editor Peter Boyle. Costumes John Bloomfield. Music Michael Kamen. Production design John Graysmark. Art directors Fred Carter, John F. Ralph. Set decorator Peter Young. Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13

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