OK, it's long, but 'The Postman' delivers

December 25, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Kevin Costner's going to take a lot of heat for "The Postman," from critics complaining it's too long, too self-involved, too silly, too maudlin.

And there's some truth in all of that, but not enough to sink what is really a very good film, an epic tale of a reluctant hero who inspires a much-needed revolt among some especially downtrodden masses. Sure it's overblown, and sure Costner's character sometimes seems too good to be true, but isn't that what myths are all about?

The year is 2013, and the combination of nuclear war, nuclear fallout and nuclear winter has left the United States in pretty much of a mess; in fact, there is no U.S.A. anymore, just a scattering of villages struggling to survive. Costner plays a nameless drifter who travels from town to town, performing Shakespeare (he's admittedly not very good, but the kids enjoy it) and trying to stay out of people's way.

Things turn ugly when the despotic General Bethlehem (Will Patton) rides into one town and conscripts all the able-bodied males -- including Costner -- into his army. A despicable fellow, Bethlehem has become a leader simply because he's the meanest, most sadistic bully around.

The drifter soon escapes, seeking shelter inside a jeep complete with a sack of undelivered mail and a skeleton still wearing its postal carrier's uniform.

Ever the opportunist, the drifter takes the mail, dons the uniform and heads for the nearest settlement, figuring the people there will gladly trade food and shelter for letters from their long-lost loved ones.

What he doesn't know is how right he is. Presenting himself as the Postman, a representative of the newly restored United States of America, he's greeted as something of a god by people desperate for any sign that civilization isn't dead, that the lives they once knew aren't gone forever.

What the Postman provides is hope, and that's good news for everyone except Bethlehem, who realizes his authority is based not so much on fear as despair.

At times, Costner the director is Costner the star's worst enemy. The prime example, de rigueur for movies in which he plays the hero: Call it his Miss America walk, the scene where the camera lingers on Costner's face while off-screen voices sing his praises.

But there's a lot to like in "The Postman." For one thing, Costner's character is far from perfect; he runs from responsibility, he's not above lying, and he's got more than a few lazy bones in his body. For another, Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland's script lets other characters take center stage, and not only Patton, who's pretty darn creepy as Bethlehem. There's also Larenz Tate as Ford Lincoln Mercury, whose belief in the Postman's cause forces the drifter to be a better man than he wants to be; and Olivia Williams, whose Abby turns out to be a more determined survivor than the Postman.

And Costner, big ego and all, has both the commanding presence and effortless grace to justify spending so much time onscreen.

Granted, at just a tick under three hours, "The Postman" is too long, and its ending is a bit of a fizzle. But unlike Mel Gibson's "Brave-heart," which had a tendency to drag, it maintains a pretty good pace. Besides, it's tough to invent a myth in 90 minutes.

'The Postman'

Directed by Kevin Costner

Starring Kevin Costner, Will Patton and Olivia Williams

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R (violence, sexuality)

***

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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