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Kevin Costner's best

Kevin Costner’s best — With ”Message in a Bottle” now on video, we take a look at some of the actor’s greatest offerings

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Kevin Costner’s best

I can’t imagine it’s easy being Kevin Costner. Yeah, I know, big movie star, multimillion-dollar paydays, boo-hoo for him. Still, the last few years had to have put a dent in the guy’s self-esteem. After being lionized as a new Gary Cooper in the late ’80s, Costner has been vilified as a latter-day Marlon Brando for the late ’90s, thanks to overstuffed epics like Waterworld that stand as paradigms of messianic, humorless bloat.

One gets the sense that this rankles the man. Costner’s fellow superstars don’t seem to have this problem: Harrison Ford sails over his few naysayers with class; Mel Gibson outfoxes them with sass; Teflon Tom Cruise has no use for doubters. (Then again, none of those guys made The Postman.) Costner, on the other hand, comes across as someone who wouldn’t mind taking a poke at one of his critics, professional or otherwise.

I would argue that that’s why he’s good. In fact, that air of aggrieved tetchiness is both the hallmark of Costner’s on-screen persona and the source of his finest performances. You can see it in sports films like Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and Tin Cup — still the best work he’s ever done (to no surprise, and some relief, Costner’s next film is the baseball romance For Love of the Game). It’s invisible in the earnest, simpleminded pageantry of Dances With Wolves. And surprisingly, it’s there — that ticked-off, take-no-crap truculence — in the oft-forgotten genre films that stud Costner’s filmography, including the new-to-tape Message in a Bottle, a throwback to the shameless, four-hanky women’s films of Hollywood’s golden age.

In other words, the rigid structure of thrillers and weepies and gangster films seems to prop Costner up, to give him the luxury to chafe against the I beams. A solid example is No Way Out (Orion, 114 mins., R), the 1987 suspenser that transposes the tightly wound plot of the 1948 film noir The Big Clock onto Reagan-era Washington. If elements of No Way Out have already become dated — Sean Young’s Princess Di hairdo, the rinky-dink synth score — Costner’s performance, as a Navy attache to the Department of Defense forced to investigate a murder committed by his boss (Gene Hackman), remains timeless. Beginning as a clean-cut Cruise clone, the star sheds his cool bit by bit, to the point where the double-whammy trick ending actually makes sense.

An even more impressive performance can be found in A Perfect World (Warner, 138 mins., PG-13), director/costar Clint Eastwood’s deceptively tranquil 1993 manhunt drama. Here, Costner plays Butch Haynes, an escaped convict who, we’re asked to believe, is a borderline genius who only wants to get to Alaska to meet his long-lost pa. But if the role is overly sentimental in the writing, it’s startlingly bitter in the playing, especially when Butch freaks out and prepares to slaughter a sharecropper’s family. It could have been a glitzy, look-Ma-I’m-a-psycho turn, but Costner is incapable of showboating (a fact that has led to dull acting elsewhere). Instead, Butch is just occasionally driven crazy by the world’s small betrayals. He’s the antihero as clear-eyed grouch.

Message in a Bottle doesn’t even offer that minimal complexity — yet Costner still gives funky shadings to a patently dippy role. He plays Garret Blake (swoon), an Outer Banks shipbuilder so lost in grief for his dead wife that he writes her letters and posts them to the waves; one of those missives is found by a hard-bitten newswoman/ single mother (Robin Wright Penn) who goes all gooey when she meets this ”natural man.” Directed by Luis Mandoki as a near homage to swank 1950s melodramas like Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, Message in a Bottle is 200-proof corn, and that, oddly, is its strength. A movie this unapologetically unhip is something of a novelty in 1999.

It helps, too, that the cast includes Paul Newman as the shipbuilder’s grizzled pop. But Costner’s no slouch, either. When we first meet Garret, his face is like a mossy, darkened house, and the way the actor lets the lights flicker back on one by one is both appreciably subtle and true to the genre. It’s not his fault if the film’s over-the-top ending seems designed less to wring viewers’ hearts than to kick them in the teeth. And it makes one wish old Kev would set his sights a little lower than yet another postapocalyptic epic. Message in a Bottle: B-; No Way Out: B+; A Perfect World: B