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Reduced to its essence, the success of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves depends on a single speech delivered by Kevin Costner as the disenfranchised nobleman who steals from the rich and gives to the poor: Surrounded by serfs living in Sherwood Forest, Costner mounts a mammoth tree trunk and summons them to join his campaign to topple the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham.

The speech is meant to be rousing. It's supposed to command the peasants' respect and galvanize their collective spirit.

But with nice-guy Costner's sing-song nasal delivery, Robin Hood's rebel yell sounds more like a charity appeal. The lavishly mounted Robin Hood, which resembles an imposing (though leaky) hot-air balloon, collapses in a heap upon the pine needles that blanket Sherwood Forest's floor.

It is the weakest moment in this handsome, droll, action-packed Raiders-like adaptation of Robin Hood that is practically bereft of romance and heavy on social messages.

Costner is the New Ager's ideal, a politically, environmentally, morally correct Robin Hood. His heart and mind are in the right place, but he's so transparent, he's like the morning mist rising from the timberlands.

It's as though Costner stepped directly from Dances with Wolves into Robin Hood _ which he did _ without any character or attitude adjustment. This is Lt. James Dunbar as Britain's robber king, with an English accent by way of the Great Plains and Malibu.

Buckskin-and-studs Costner (as opposed to cotton-and-sequins Errol Flynn) is not Robin Hood's greatest liability. He's merely drab.

The epic's biggest problem is its direction by Kevin Reynolds whose limited credits include Fandango, The Beast and two weeks of second-unit work on Dances With Wolves. Reynolds can't sustain the movie's pacing, nor can he blend the disparate elements of this sweeping epic.

Alan Rickman plays the evil Sheriff of Nottingham as Snidely Whiplash or some other moustache-twirling cartoon villain. Everyone else is playing his role in earnest.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio makes her entrance disguised in a man's armor. As a self-actualized Maid Marian, she practically emasculates Robin Hood with her sword and then with the brashness of her banter. Yet at the movie's climax, when Robin Hood and the sheriff settle their differences with clanging steel, she cowers in a corner shrieking like Kim Basinger in Batman. Mastrantonio plays both scenes marvelously; they just don't seem to belong to the same character.

Although Robin Hood runs nearly 2{ hours, it seems like the Cliff Notes version of the 12th-century legend. Screenwriters Pen Densham and John Watson compress Robin and Marian's romance to the point that it's merely a spark. The blood knot that ties Robin and Will Scarlet (Christian Slater) plays like an afterthought. The conversion of Friar Tuck (Michael McShane) to outlaw cleric is practically instantaneous.

On a marginally deeper level, the peasants' hatred of the landowners is hardly explored, nor is the Church's collusion with the sheriff or the sheriff's use of witchcraft to fulfill what the Church cannot do.

The dialogue is unduly labored. Maid Marian wonders, "How did a once arrogant young nobleman find contentment living with the salt of the Earth?"

Yet, there are touches that make Robin Hood enormously entertaining. The battles _ with flaming arrows, catapults and a forest city of catwalks and tree houses under siege _ are masterfully recorded. The sorcery scenes shared by Rickman and Geraldine McEwan as the blue- and brown-eyed witch Mortianna are supremely diabolical. The sheriff's disdain for his servants and inner circle, notably Guy of Gisborne (Michael Wincott), is rudely, wickedly funny.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' most inspired invention is a new character, the wise and cultured Moor Azeem, who accompanies Robin Hood back to England from the Crusades. Played with quiet dignity by Morgan Freeman, Azeem is the movie's conscience, a worldly and sophisticated Moslem surrounded by barbaric Christians. (Freeman is to Robin Hood what the Sioux were to Lt. James Dunbar.)

Azeem educates Robin's merry men about seemingly alien races, cultures and religions, about the manufacture of gun powder and about breech birth deliveries.

And, shortly after arriving in England, Azeem instructs Robin Hood on the finer points of courtship when Robin tells Azeem he plans to make British lasses lose their senses with mistletoe.

"In my country," Azeem says, "we talk to women. We don't drug them with plants."

Words to live by. Today.


Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Director: Kevin Reynolds

Cast: Kevin Costner, Alan Rickman, Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Christian Slater

Screenplay: Pen Densham & John Watson, based on a story by Densham

Rating: PG-13; violence

Running time: 141 minutes