Lover men

Three new films offer different takes on the myth of the romantic hero

The Marquis asks Rob Roy to side with him against Killearn in exchange for loaning him another thousand pounds, but our hero is too honest to do such a thing, and his impudence and inflexibility drive the Marquis into a homicidal snit. Rob Roy flees for the Highlands, and in between tender domestic interludes with his loving wife, Mary (Jessica Lange), campfire strategy sessions with his fellow clansmen, and the occasional defensive retreat into the moors, he tries to figure a way out of this mess.

The story has all the ingredients of a breathlessly romantic adventure tale, but neither veteran screenwriter Alan Sharp (whose credits include such savage classics as Ulzana's Raid) nor the director can figure out how to present them. The film's obsession with rotting teeth, spurting wounds, slain and gutted animals, mutilation, urination, and torture seems to point toward a willful deglamorization of adventure-movie clichés, but these elements are canceled out by the good guys' Hollywood-perfect makeup and hair, cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub's spectacular widescreen vistas, and Carter Burwell's swelling, DeMille-style symphonic score.

With such superb elements at his disposal, Caton-Jones could have easily created either a popcorn swashbuckler or a serious-minded Iron John adventure epic about the consequences of machismo. But because he wants both and isn't very smart, he achieves neither. Certain scenes, montages, and patches of high-flown dialogue suggest that we're going to be treated to a serious and clear-eyed exploration of the warrior mentality, but no sooner has the film served them up than a comic-bookish action scene or a swath of fortune-cookie dialogue arrives to undo them.

Rob Roy is the kind of muddled movie that allows the hero's wife to berate him for being stubborn and macho and relying on violence to solve things, then turns around and wraps up the narrative with a crowd-pleasing swordfight. It's also the kind of movie that goes to great lengths to provide the bad guys with believable motivations, then chucks them out the window during a village-pillage jamboree in which a cute dog is shot, houses are torched, cattle are slaughtered, and the hero's wife is graphically raped on a kitchen table. (It's a wonder the villains didn't compound their evilness by parking their horses in handicapped spots.)

Even more damaging is the film's conception of Rob Roy as an archetypal hero who exists mostly to be adored. When he isn't bestowing his manly endowments on his ever-grateful wife, he's slaying enemies as if swatting flies, delivering helpful lectures to his sons, or listening blank-faced as his fellow highlanders tell him how wise, fast, strong, deadly, handsome, and potent he is. (At one point, the camera cranes back from Rob Roy and Mary having sex against a rock so that the edifice juts suggestively up against the sky.) The result feels like a Steven Seagal movie directed by David Lean. Liam Neeson is a monumental screen presence--six feet three inches of pure testosterone, with a craggy face capped by a broken-prow nose that suggests an Easter Island statue with stubble. He doesn't need to be hyped. That his director seems hell-bent on doing so suggests that nobody involved with Rob Roy had the slightest idea of what they wanted to achieve.

Three years ago, Daniel Day-Lewis was ferociously convincing as a one-dimensional, rifle-slinging, quick-sprinting love god in Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans, but only because the film was structured as a hyperkinetic fairy tale with only the vaguest tethering to reality. It was a pure visceral experience--a gorgeous, violent symphony of clashing human wills.

Judging from Rob Roy's newspaper ads, billboard images, and television spots, United Artists would love to make moviegoers think they're buying a ticket to a Scottish version of the same. But they aren't. Rob Roy huffs and puffs on its celluloid bagpipes, but no music comes out--just a long, slow, tuneless moan.

Don Juan DeMarco. Fine Line. Johnny Depp, Marlon Brando, Faye Dunaway. Written and directed by Jeremy Leven. Opens April 7.

Jefferson in Paris. Touchstone Films. Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi, Thandie Newton. Written by Ruth Prawer Jhavbala. Directed by James Ivory. Opens April 7.

Rob Roy. United Artists. Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, Tim Roth. Script by Alan Sharp. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Opens April 7.

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