Almost A Bull's-Eye -- Costner May Miss Mark, But Rickman, Reynolds Make It A Rousing `Robin Hood'

XXX "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves," with Kevin Costner, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Alan Rickman, Christian Slater, Morgan Freeman. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, from a script by Pen Densham and John Watson. Alderwood, Cinerama, Crossroads, Gateway, Kent, John Danz, Northgate, Southcenter, Totem Lake, Puget Park and Valley drive-ins. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised, due to language, violence. ------------------------------------------------------------ In 1985, Kevin Costner became a star with his agile, roguish performance as an outlaw who was about to be hanged in "Silverado." It was the kind of role Errol Flynn might have reveled in, and Costner seemed a natural to fill Flynn's shoes in a remake of "Robin Hood."

But Flynn was 28 when he made "The Adventures of Robin Hood," and Costner is now 36. He moves more slowly than he did in "Silverado," he looks almost too well-fed to be playing the bandit of Sherwood Forest, and he isn't demonstrably in charge when he's supposed to be leading his outlaw gang. He's just an amiable American who has somehow wandered onto the set of a gangbusters British action movie.

No matter. "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves" works anyway. Despite the miscasting of the central role and quite a lot of lackluster dialogue, the story proves again to be almost foolproof. The fight sequences are explosive, the physical production is impressive, and the supporting performances are full of juice.

Except for a sluggish midsection that threatens to become revisionist in the most politically correct manner, the pace is rousing, and the 138-minute movie builds to a crowd-pleasing climax, complete with a surprise cameo appearance that couldn't be more welcome or appropriate. (No, I'm not going to tell, even if last month's Premiere magazine did.)

If there's a hero here, it's another Kevin: Kevin Reynolds, who directed Costner in "Fandango" and went on to make "The Beast," one of the most underrated action films of the late 1980s. He holds the picture together by making the conflicts clear, establishing who's unerringly right and who's brutally wrong, and then letting his heavies have so much fun that they're right on the edge of camp and sometimes over it. In short, Reynolds makes this "Robin Hood" larger than life in the tradition of the classic swashbucklers.

Reynolds and his writers may leave out a few of the traditional Robin Hood story points (there's no archery contest in which the disguised Robin can secretly reveal his talents), but they make up for it by adding plenty of clever new touches.

There's a spectacular new opening in Jerusalem, where Robin has been captured during King Richard's latest Crusade and is about to have his hand chopped off by the Turks. The sequence swiftly establishes the fact that this isn't quite like any "Robin Hood" movie we've seen before. It's visually grittier, the violence is fairly graphic, and the Dolby soundtrack roars with the sounds of steel, wood and flesh colliding.

Reynolds throws us right into the hellish failure of the Crusades, then takes us to England to find Robin's father being hounded by the Sheriff of Nottingham - a sweaty, sardonic barbarian who hangs children, consorts with a cackling witch straight out of "Macbeth," and announces during a fit of pique that there will be "no more merciful beheadings . . . and call off Christmas!" He's played, of course, by Alan Rickman, who steals the show as handily as he did in "Die Hard."

When Robin gets back to England, he has all sorts of personal reasons to do battle with this monster - among them the defense of the virtue of Maid Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who mostly remembers Robin as a childhood bully but still prefers him to the sheriff, who means to marry her.

Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor almost seems like an afterthought. The writers make surprisingly little of the political meaning of Robin's actions; when Costner makes speeches about freedom and sacrifice, he seems to be grasping for a motive. (These episodes suffer in comparison with similar but better-written scenes in the current reissue of "Spartacus," in which Kirk Douglas gives far more authority to his calls to rebellion.)

But if this "Robin Hood" lacks a center, if it isn't really first-rate, it at least has enough zest and spirit to provide us with one big summer movie to rally around. With all its flaws, it's never the clinker it could have been.