Recalling the great romantic action heroes, one immediately fastens onto their images: Errol Flynn, absurdly angular and fit, his eyes dancing with resplendent mischief; Sean Connery as James Bond, his shiny black hair offset by bushy brows, leathery tan, white tux. As vital as appearance was to these peerless superstars, though, it was how they sounded that crystallized their personalities. Flynn's swashbuckling heroes almost seemed to be singing their dialogue. And Connery summoned up all of 007's egocentric virility through the darting, sensual way he dug into the words ''Bond James Bond'' (a line none of his successors has ever quite mastered). Where would these actors be without their voices, without the inner, expressive counterpart to their feats of derring-do? They'd be where Kevin Costner is in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves: stuck in the role of a dashing hero and sounding like he just woke up to answer the phone.
As Robin of Locksley, Costner delivers his lines in a languid, earnest torpor. The problem isn't his American accent, which occasionally shades off into acting-class British. It's that he seems preoccupied, vaguely depressed. (Cracking a smile appears to be a major effort for him.) When Robin announces that he's not simply going to join the outlaws of Sherwood Forest, he's going to lead them, we don't feel his fervor, his exuberant desire to hold sway. Costner sounds like he's just decided to run for city council.
As a piece of escapism, this deluxe, action-heavy, 2-hour-and-21-minute Robin Hood gets the job done. You're carried along by plot, production values, and some choice supporting actors. Yet it's a rouser without a rousing hero. Costner doesn't disgrace himself he has the star presence the role demands. What he's not is an impassioned Robin Hood. And without the sense that Robin is on a humanistic mission (one that's a pleasure to fulfill), the story has no charge. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves often feels like it was made by committee. The woodland images are robust and organic, yet the shots aren't edited together to form a consistent point of view. You have to keep getting your bearings, and when you look to Costner, what you see in spirit is a blur.
The classic Errol Flynn version, made in 1938, isn't a great movie, yet there's magic an ethereal jubilance and ease in Flynn's performance. He convinces you he's having the party of his life out there in the greenwood. At first, the makers of Prince of Thieves appear to be darkening the legend. Robin, having endured years of imprisonment and torture during the Crusades, escapes his captors in Jerusalem and returns to the emerald hills of England. Accompanied by his trusted companion Azeem (Morgan Freeman), a devout Muslim Moor with a triangle of decorative religious dots etched into each cheek, he discovers that his beloved homeland is under a siege of terror. Among other crimes, the fascist Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) has murdered Robin's nobleman father. Robin vows, ''I will not rest until my father is avenged.'' Then he slices his hand open to show us that he means it.
For a while, the movie looks like it's going to follow in the mold of 1989's Batman adding a bedeviled element to the crime-fighting romanticism, turning the hero into a man who battles evil in the name of vengeance. Yet all this gets dropped pretty quickly. Robin's father is barely mentioned again, and the movie turns into the familiar saga of Robin and his joshing peasant renegades struggling to bring down the nasty sheriff. There are some exciting action scenes. The director, Kevin Reynolds, gives them a contemporary brutality and zap, especially when the men unsheath their clanking broadswords, which are so heavy they hardly need to be sharp to kill you. But for all the rousing sequences of Robin and his men shooting off flaming arrows and combatting the sheriff's forces, there aren't enough occasions when they triumph through their wits. Robin Hood, after all, is meant to be a trickster, a rogue. But we don't see enough of his charming guile. What's more, except for a couple of whiz-bang camera effects devoted to the spectacle of arrows in flight, we're barely invited to take pleasure in his prowess as an archer.
The live-wire excitement that is missing from Costner's performance is there in Alan Rickman as the twisted sheriff. Rickman, who was the terrorist in Die Hard, has a gift for playing villains who are made physically itchy by their thwarted ambitions. He's got great Silly Putty features: His mouth, crammed with bad English teeth, contorts into pretzels of disgust and rage yet above it, his big schnoz and pleading eyes recall Ringo Starr's soft-edged melancholy. (He's a psycho who's crying on the inside.) Sporting a jet-black, '60s-heavy-metal do, his Sheriff of Nottingham is like a skinny rat who can't stop gnawing. There's a comic impatience to this gimlet-eyed dictator, who wenches to relieve his anxiety. Rickman, coating every line in sarcastic venom, makes the character a perverse, modern fiend, yet he's also in the tradition of British-ham megalomaniacs who, going back to Shakespeare's Richard III, express their love of evil through words.
People are bound to say that Costner is upstaged by Rickman. The truth, though, is that he's upstaged by nearly every actor who shares a scene with him. Christian Slater as the rowdy, hungry-looking Will Scarlett, Nick Brimble as twinkly-eyed Little John, Freeman as the stoic Azeem, who looks at ''civilized'' England with a quizzically cocked eyebrow each of these actors has a spark, and you end up wanting to see more of them. It's only their boss who doesn't deserve to be called merry.