'Rob Roy' is so good it seems old-fashioned Adventure has good and evil and terrific scenery

April 07, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Give me that old-time religion of romance and daring, of heroism and sacrifice, of love and honor. Give me that old-time religion of a powerful story well-told, with a hero to admire and a villain to hate. And, while you're at it, let the two go man-on-man in the last minutes, each bearing three feet of cold steel.

Give me, in short, "Rob Roy," the best film to hit town in many a month, the most old-fashioned film to hit town in many a year, and a film that's flat out terrific. Raids. Sword fights. Narrow escapes. Beautiful scenery. Impossible nobility. Foaming, sneering evil. Have I died and gone to old-movie heaven or what?

Was there ever a role Liam Neeson was better suited for than Sir Walter Scott's rogue Scottish clansman Rob Roy MacGregor who, early in the 18th century, takes on the high British lords of his captive land and leaves them all gasping with frustration or bleeding with puncture wounds? Neeson, loping and huge, with the long face and earnest eyes of a particularly loyal hunting hound, and a rock star's smoldering romantic radiance, makes a terrific rebel with a cause -- and a skirt.

But a hero is never enough. So let's bring on the black-hearted, snuff-snorting, lace-hankied, cold-eyed swordsman Cunningham, played with relish, ketchup and mustard by Tim Roth as a fop and a killer, a plotter and a skunk, and the best bad boy in years. Roth seems like such a gamble; he has one of those modern, anti-classic faces and was quite at home in "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" and before that "The Hit." But put him in silks and periwigs, powder his cheeks, redden his lips and anoint him with camphor, and he's still a gangster. One of the great treats of his performance is the transparency of his duality. When he's dressed to go into society, he's dainty and prissy and delicate, with a limp wrist and a lisp and the mincing, tight-bunned strut of a dandy. When the wig and satins come off, he's a close-cropped young thug, ambitious, ruthless and violent. In either guise, he's a downpour of bad news.

Screenwriter Alan Sharp has also done a terrific job streamlining the novel and finding a tissue of convincing modern motives to propel the characters rather than the abstractions of the 18th century. It's an intelligent script too. It moors the film solidly in Scottish history, at that tipsy moment when a deposed Scots king name James lurked somewhere nearby while an English king named Charles tried to stabilize the lands his ancestors had won by conquest four centuries earlier. It should help if you know up front that "the Jacobites," about whom everybody blathers, were the secret followers of James. And the dialogue is witty and convincing.

Sir Walter Scott, of course, was the great novelist as nationalist. The point of his flamboyant oeuvre was to impress upon the lords and ladies of the lower half of the island of Great Britain what wild and wonderful things lay in the upper half. A lot of that pro-Scottish blather is gone from the film, along with three-quarters of the clankily melodramatic plotting. What remains of pure "Scotland Forever" sentiment is coded into the stunning natural beauty of the place, which Karl Walter Lindenlaub makes look like the place you move into from Valhalla when the neighborhood goes downhill: it's a blue-green paradise of far valleys and farther mountains, the natural terrain of landscape painters and guerrilla soldiers.

As the film opens, however, Rob Roy is no scalawag and freebooter. He's not even a reaver (look it up). Though he's the best man around, he's committed to kith and kin. He only wants more stability for his family -- passionate wife Jessica Lange and two perfect boys -- which ekes out a tenuous living as sharecroppers to the sneering, cynical Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt in the Claude Raines role, deliciously coy), as well as occasional forays as the local lawman.

So he borrows money from his Lordship for a campaign in cattle entrepreneurship. The dastardly Cunningham and a creepy secretary, Killearn (Brian Cox, once a Hannibal Lecter), conspire to steal it from the man who'd taken it in Rob's name, putting Rob between the rock and the hard place, forcing him into outlawhood. When soldiers, led by the hypocritical Cunningham, come to collect the debt, a messy little war breaks out. And Lange learns that one of the penalties of being a guerrilla's wife in a guerrilla war is rape, which intensifies the hatred between Rob and the swooping bird of prey Cunningham.

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