Hollywood's cutthroat summer season is only a few weeks old and already there's blood on the ground - the $50 million corpse of "Hudson Hawk." This summer's movies may be marginally kinder and gentler, but the competition's no less fierce. Here's four to pick from.
It is not surprising that the new Robin of Locksley played by the man who made "Dances With Wolves" has a political conscience that is a tad, well, advanced for the 12th century. Returning to England from the Crusades after five years in prison, he's accompanied by a magnificent Moor, Azeem (Morgan Freeman), so dignified, so technologically and morally advanced the film practically genuflects every time he utters a line. "You're an honor to your country," attests Kevin Costner's Robin Hood, who has vowed to avenge his father's death at the hands of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) and has Azeem along for insurance. Nor is this "Robin Hood" going to be caught with the politically incorrect attitude toward women: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's Maid Marian is a feisty, take-charge aristocrat, and Little John's wife, Sarah, isn't just a whiz at childbearing, she's no slouch on the battlefield.
What is surprising about "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" is how genuinely funny it turns out to be. It takes a while for director Kevin Reynolds to find the proper tone - the exposition requires patience - but once Robin wends his way to Sherwood Forest this remake finds its buoyant, silly spirit and treats the audience to a marvelously stirring ride. The cream of the jest is Rickman's scene-stealing outrageousness as the Sheriff, a petulant tyrant who throws the best hissy fits in Olde England. "Cancel the kitchen scraps for the poor!" he roars. "And cancel Christmas!"
In the face of Rickman's magisterial mugging, Costner keeps his characteristic cool, underplaying to the point of blandness. He's not the most scintillating Robin - and his now-you-hear-it-now-you-don't accent is odd indeed - but he gives the film a comforting center from which it can spin its madder variations. Borrowing in equal parts from King Arthur (Geraldine McEwan as the Sheriff's witch seer), Shakespeare and Monty Python, with some halfhearted Freudian attempts to explore Robin's unresolved feelings about his father, this "Robin Hood," written by Pen Densham and John Watson, takes some strange turns, but it never forgets the whopping good yarn that inspires it. Little John (Nick Brimble), Friar Tuck (Michael McShane) and a volatile Will Scarlett (Christian Slater) are present and well accounted for. You cheer the good guys, gasp at the cliffhangers, hiss the villains and leave the theater with an old-fashioned sense of satisfaction. It may not be great filmmaking - it's certainly not for purists - but it's definitely good fun.
In the funniest scene in "City Slickers," Billy Crystal, as a depressed New York radio ad salesman undergoing a massive midlife crisis, stands in front of his son's grammar-school class and explains what he does for a living. But what is supposed to be a vocational pep talk turns into a litany of woe, regret and angst so contagious even the kids get depressed. And the more miserable Crystal becomes, the harder we laugh.
To revive his flagging spirits, Crystal signs on for a cattle drive through the Southwest with his two best buddies, Phil (Daniel Stern), a sad-sack grocer trapped in a ghastly marriage, and Ed (Bruno Kirby), a macho posturer newly married to a much younger woman. As they set off on their therapeutic adventure, they are joined by a black dentist and his son, a pair of out-of shape ice-cream tycoons (equipped with horse phones) and the obligatory Girl (Helen Slater, with nothing to do). Their menacing trail boss, Curly (Jack Palance), who must whip these jock nerds into shape, is a hilarious parody of leathery masculinity guaranteed to send shivers of inadequacy into their city-slicker souls.
The comic setup is smart, and the undertone of seriousness makes the first part of "City Slickers" genuinely amusing. But when the movie decides to get seriously serious it wears out its welcome fast. Did we really pay to see a male-sensitivity-training movie on horseback? It's cute when Crystal plays midwife to the birth of a calf; but by the time he braves the rapids to save the adorable animal the audience itself may feel like a cow: we're just there to be milked.
Screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel needed a tougher trail boss than director Ron Underwood ("Tremors"), who dutifully follows their script into every maudlin puddle in sight (the nudging Marc Shaiman score compounds the error). Would these guys - who've shown little interest in their herd - really get all mushy when they learn the cattle are going to the slaughterhouse? The movie wants it all ways: you can be a Marlboro Man and a vegetarian too! Still, Crystal, Kirby and the always excellent Stern give it their best shots. They remain funny and likable to the end, by which point "City Slickers" has evaporated into utter vacuity.
This unhinged farce rips the lid off daytime soap operas and discovers. more soap opera. We are on the set of "The Sun Also Sets," a ludicrous potboiler that has turned star Celeste Talbert (Sally Field) into a household word and a raging prima donna who requires massive doses of adulation to bolster her shaky ego. A conniving costar, Montana Moorehead (Cathy Moriarty), is in cahoots with the show's lustful producer (Robert Downey Jr.) to drag Celeste down, to which end he hires her former lover, ham actor Jeffrey Anderson (Kevin Kline), to return to the show, even though his character had previously been decapitated. But how to turn her fans against Celeste? Hey, how 'bout having her character murder a homeless person? Why not a mute homeless girl!
It is the conceit of "Soapdish," directed by Michael Hoffman and written by Robert ("Steel Magnolias") Harling and the wonderfully nutty Andrew ("The Freshman") Bergman, that the idiot plot twists of "The Sun Also Sets" are no more insane than the machinations of its cast and crew, which get as star-crossed as a loopy version of "Oedipus Rex." Perhaps because Harling and Bergman have such different sensibilities, no one can accuse "Soapdish" of being a seamless movie. Scenes are attenuated; some of the real-life plot twists puff and strain; the satirical edge goes soft in spots. Never mind. A movie with this many belly laughs can be forgiven almost anything. The sight of Kline playing Willy Loman at the Opa-Locka Dinner Theatre to an audience of half-deaf octogenarians belongs in the movie-farce pantheon. Not far behind is the supremely silly scene in which, on the show, the nearsighted Kline is required to perform brain surgery upon his costar on a restaurant table but can't read the TelePrompTer. If Kline tends to steal the show whenever he's on, he's given a run for his money by the breathless Field, the deliciously spiteful Moriarty, a drolly slimy Downey, Garry Marshall as the head of daytime programming and Whoopi Goldberg as Celeste's head writer and loyal friend. "Soapdish" is just what any summer season needs - uninhibited lunacy.
Based on comic-book characters that many moviegoers have probably never heard of, this gee-whiz adventure - directed by "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" Joe Johnston - attempts to capture the innocent, Saturday-matinee spirit of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The results are more likely to captivate kids than grownups, who may have overdosed on deja vu. The Rocketeer is wide-eyed racing pilot Cliff Secord (newcomer Bill Campbell), an all-American lad who stumbles upon a rocket pack that enables him to fly without wings. The year is 1938, and there are a lot of nasty folks who want to get their hands on this invention, including Nazis, the FBI and a swashbuckling swine of a movie star (Timothy Dalton) who tries to seduce Cliff's aspiring-actress sweatheart (Jennifer Connelly) to get to Cliff's prize.
The movie has a determinedly sweet, innocuous spirit, some nifty sets (including a fine imitation of a Frank Lloyd Wright house) and action sequences that are mercifully more bouncy than bone-crunching. But the screenplay (by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo) could use a bit more sophisticated sparkle, and neither Campbell nor Connelly has enough star wattage to turn their blandly virtuous characters into memorable ones. Even quirky Alan Arkin gets decolorized as Cliff's mechanic mentor. Johnston is a proficient craftsman, but like the Rocketeer himself, he's a little short on personality. This movie makes you appreciate the stylistic alchemy of a Spielberg. Without it, "The Rocketeer" seems merely generic.