Gimmicks in Sherwood Forest

KEVIN COSTNER'S new epic, ``Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves'' follows in the swashbuckling footsteps of memorable predecessors: ``The Adventures of Robin Hood,'' a 1938 classic with Errol Flynn in one of his best-loved roles, and ``Robin and Marian,'' which returned to Sherwood Forest in 1976 with middle-aged characters, a somber mood, and a penchant for the ``revisionist'' storytelling that was in vogue a couple of decades ago. Mr. Costner's version - which opens in theaters around the nation today - is neither a reverent retelling nor a bold revision. It's a slick and sassy attempt to get mileage from a dependable vehicle by wrapping it in as many sure-fire gimmicks as the filmmakers can cram onto the screen.

Members of the production team reportedly joked about their project by calling it ``Raiders of the Lost Sherwood Forest'' while it was being made - and sure enough, the movie is dominated less by the spirit of Merrie Olde England than by the shade of Indiana Jones and his big-budget shenanigans.

It's a lively picture, and there's every chance it will become one of the year's biggest hits. But this won't mean 1990s audiences want to explore the historical byways of days long past. It will simply mean the Age of Spielberg is more solidly in place than ever.

The story begins in Jerusalem about 800 years ago. Robin of Locksley has journeyed there to fight in the Crusades, and things haven't gone too well: He's in prison when we first meet him, scheduled for a gruesome punishment. It takes about 20 seconds for him to plan and carry out a daring (if inexplicable) escape, and soon he's back in his native Nottingham, where the evil sheriff has taken to starving, terrorizing, and generally exploiting the local population.

Determined to rid the countryside of this injustice, the newly named Robin Hood gathers a band of Merry Men including such trusty characters as the burly Little John, the even burlier Friar Tuck, the potentially treacherous Will Scarlett - who is the main focus of the film's half-hearted Freudian twists - and a Moor named Azeem, who made our hero's acquaintance in the Jerusalem jail. Together they scheme to undo the sheriff.

``Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves'' was directed by Kevin Reynolds from a screenplay by Pen Densham and John Watson, but there's little doubt that Costner's current movie-world clout - at a pinnacle since the box-office and Academy Award triumph of ``Dances With Wolves,'' his recent western - has made him the centerpiece of the production. While traces of his vaguely progressive ``new age'' sensibility run through the production, however, they aren't enough to cancel out the anything-for-a-thrill commerci alism that seems to be the movie's first priority. In terms of content, this is hardly the ``Robin Hood for the '90s'' that a truly forward-looking movie might have given us. There are precious few Merry Women in the hero's entourage, for instance, and even Maid Marian is relegated largely to love-interest status.

In terms of style, the picture is all too ``now'' in its approach, with a relentlessly busy camera that peppers the action with far more visual punctuation than it ever needs. Costner's breezily uninspired acting benefits from this, but the film's most solid performances - especially that of Alan Rickman as the sheriff - lose more than they gain from the distractions. Only the amazing Morgan Freeman, as Azeem, carries an unshakeable dignity and humor that hold up even when the plot and dialogue threaten to become too trite or silly for comfort. Here's hoping he stars in the sequel.

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