Whenever this magazine reviews a Kevin Costner movie with less hosannas, we get letters from readers accusing us of everything from sour grapes to voodoo. His fans seem convinced that critics just don’t like Costner and will never give him fair shake.
But what’s really a fair shake is to acknowledge that Costner’s a fine actor who happens to be at his best in films with modern settings. He’s wonderful in Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and No Way Out, because he was enough rough edges to seem one of us and enough star charisma to make heroics look real. He’s an average Joe — except he is above average.
The ambitions inherent in big-budget period films tamp down Costner’s risky side, though. In The Untouchables and his own Dances With Wolves, he’s dutiful, even dull. And as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he’s dismally out of place, a 1990s guy stranded in the 1190s. Doubters need only rent Robin Hood on a video double bill with Fandango, a lovely little comedy from the beginning of Costner’s career, to see how the actor has lately played against his strengths: You can almost feel the weight of stardom that descended in the intervening six years. That both films are directed by the star’s long time friend Kevin Reynolds makes comparisons even keener.
Set in 1970, Fandango follows five college seniors in Texas on one last road trip before the real world (i.e. Vietnam and marriage) claims them. Sam Robards (Jason’s son) plays the nice guy tempted to buck the draft. Judd Nelson plays the uptight ROTC nerd; he’s obnoxious on purpose, for once, and it works. Costner is cast as Gardner Barnes, the hell-raiser of the group. It’s a Dennis Quaid role — the grown-up kid living in the edge of his impulses — and it’s to Costner’s credit that he shows you the arrogance and insecurity driving this charming braggart toward an empty future.
Fandango isn’t quite the Great Lost Kevin movie. It has its shares of pretensions and clichés, as well as a disconcerting habit of dodging into Porky’s territory (two mooning shots are too many, thank you). But the flaws are those of a young director, and so are the high points: a hilarious, raucous sequence in which Costner bullies Nelson into a parachute jump, and the unexpectedly affecting small-town finale.
The young director in question had lucked out by sending his short student film Proof to Steven Spielberg, who liked it so much he gave Reynolds money to turn it into a feature-lenght film. Reynolds put Costner in the lead; it was going to be the big break for both. But Fandango’s a small movie of the type that can leave ticket buyers feeling rooked, and it flopped. Costner had to wait for Silverado (a Western, and the one costume flick in which he seems to be enjoying himself) to make his mark, while Reynolds did little besides the obscure 1988 war movie The Beast until he was brought onto Robin Hood with the expectation (correct) that Costner would follow suit.
It’s safe bet that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves will be forgotten in 10 years, while the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, will still be dazzling viewers. By then, with luck, Kevin Costner will have relocated the simple, hellacious spark he had to spare in Fandango and that he needed so badly for this. B