Liam Neeson is a fine big slab of testosterone, a competent actor and a reasonably likable screen presence. He's not, however, a movie star. He may be paid like a movie star, he may be given starring roles, but the excitement, the sense of intimacy that a true movie star generates, he's shown only once--in last year's Oscar winner Schindler's List. Neeson's opacity as an actor matched the historical Schindler's opacity of motivation, and the role's fit seemed to give Neeson a jolt of energy--his wolfish, flashing-eyed glamour was the key to the film's avoidance of the maudlin.
Right as he was for the task of representing the elusive nature of a real-life hero like Herr Schindler, Neeson does not, sadly, seem to have the expansive yet accessible personality required to play a legendary hero, especially one like the title character of Rob Roy. Robert Roy MacGregor, the Jacobite highlander fighting for his clan against the villainies (English-influenced, of course) of the nobility, is an incorruptible pile of virtues--honor, loyalty, valor.
For us to truly care about Rob, however, that pile must be arranged so that it resembles a real person. In order for us to believe in Rob's purity, it has to be given some sort of human context--something to connect us to the character without compromising his epic stature. This has taken many forms among the actors who play such roles, from Errol Flynn's jaunty, self-deprecating friskiness to Charlton Heston's Sinai-size irritability. But Neeson's morose blankness just doesn't bring Rob to life for us.
The movie in general is comparable to its star--large, not bad to look at, quite dull. The director, Michael Caton-Jones, who made a similar handsome bore out of the Profumo affair in his debut film, Scandal, paces the film at a labored plod, and some of the dialogue, by Alan Sharp, can't have been a picnic to say with a straight face. Perhaps the strain of mouthing the words is the cause of the unconscionably long pauses between lines.
About the only real juice in Rob Roy is provided by Tim Roth as the Englishman Cunningham, the sardonic fop villian, who never loses his chatty, airy manner, even while he's raping Rob's wife (Jessica Lange) and burning down their farmhouse. Some stirring Scottish music is played on the soundtrack, and there's a pretty good sword fight at the end, but--in the pragmatic terms of my own haggis-eating ancestors--these are rather wee returns for so tedious an investment.
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Three figures from American folklore fare better--a little better, at least--in Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill. The script of this kids' movie, by Steven L. Bloom and Robert Rodat, is extremely unsatisfying. It teams the title gunslinger with logger Paul Bunyan and railroad-spike driver John Henry to help a boy save his family's farm from an evil turn-of-the-century rail baron (Scott Glenn). The result is a poorly sorted jumble of ideas, hampered by the commercial banalities that govern (and so often ruin) films for children. The director, Jeremiah Chechik, fails to find a way to separate the film's realistic and fanciful sides.
But there are compensations. The kid (Nick Stahl) isn't cloying, and the three actors playing the folk heroes--Patrick Swayze as Bill, Roger Aaron Brown as John Henry and Oliver Platt as Bunyan (plus a quick visit by Catherine O'Hara as Calamity Jane)--find the humanity and wit that we miss with Neeson's Rob Roy. In particular, Swayze's wryly deadpan turn as Bill may well be the best film work he's done.
The other major strength of Tall Tale is, to come back once again to Schindler's List, the simply breathtaking cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, whose stunning black-and-white work on Schindler won him an Oscar, but who is clearly no less gifted when working in color.
Kaminski made his debut in this country shooting another Western with a fantasy theme, the fine low-budget indie Grim Prairie Tales. He can find a ravishing variety of hues in the Western landscape, and on animals as well--the blue on Paul Bunyan's ox, Babe, is iridescent. Babe is played by two oxen, billed as "Luke" and "Belle," and they give an entirely creditable joint performance.