Whenever this magazine reviews a Kevin Costner movie with less hosannas, we get letters from readers accusing us of everything from sour grapes to voodoo. His fans seem convinced that critics just don’t like Costner and will never give him fair shake.

But what’s really a fair shake is to acknowledge that Costner’s a fine actor who happens to be at his best in films with modern settings. He’s wonderful in Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and No Way Out, because he was enough rough edges to seem one of us and enough star charisma to make heroics look real. He’s an average Joe — except he is above average.

The ambitions inherent in big-budget period films tamp down Costner’s risky side, though. In The Untouchables and his own Dances With Wolves, he’s dutiful, even dull. And as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he’s dismally out of place, a 1990s guy stranded in the 1190s. Doubters need only rent Robin Hood on a video double bill with Fandango, a lovely little comedy from the beginning of Costner’s career, to see how the actor has lately played against his strengths: You can almost feel the weight of stardom that descended in the intervening six years. That both films are directed by the star’s long time friend Kevin Reynolds makes comparisons even keener.

It might have been a fertile reunion if shooting hadn’t been jammed through in a effort to beat other Robins to the screen. Or if the star hadn’t been visibly burnt out from his Dances With Wolves chores. Or if the director had reined Alan Rickman’s showy Sheriff of Nottingham — a performance good for cheap laughs but basically a fat chunk of English ham, with cloves (the producers who ordered Rickman’s scenes edited down had the wrong response but the right intentions.)

Further hampering Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves on video is the filmmakers’ revisionist production design. The dark medieval sets yielded interesting detail on the big screen, but on the TV they congeal into a mud bath more reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When Reynolds takes his camera out into the lush British countryside, the movie visibly inhales.

The film’s failure finally comes down to Costner, though. His decision to play Robin of Locksley as a brooding avenger isn’t bad in itself, and in his quieter scenes you can see a character of thoughtful power: an aristocrat forged by the squalor of his times into a leader of men. But then he opens his mouth to say, ”Mistletoe! Many a maid has lost her resolve to me thanks to this little plant!” in an accent more Brentwood than Sherwood — and the whole affair collapses in a graceless heap. Given more rehearsal time, he might have found the right mix of ordinaries and derring-do. With more time, Reynolds might have made as good a movie as he did a peg for Warner Bros’ marketing department. We” never know.

Some nice pieces survive: effortless performances by Morgan Freeman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, a final assault on the sheriff’s castle that delivers the heady rush one expects from Robin Hood movies. Other than that, it’s safe bet that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves will be forgotten in 10 years, while the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, will still be dazzling viewers. By then, with luck, Kevin Costner will have relocated the simple, hellacious spark he had to spare in Fandango and that he needed so badly for this. C-

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
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