Cinema: The perfect mail

Kevin Costner's latest film is about a futuristic postman. And it's utter tosh. Whatever happened to the once-epic star of 'Dances With Wolves'? By David Thomson

THE POSTER began appearing long in advance of the movie; it had an epic, legendary glow, a timelessness. Was it a painting? There was just this simple picture of a rather windswept, tattered man leading a mule across an enormous desert. The copy line told America, "The Postman is Coming."

Well, in the US, as in many other advanced nations, the postal service is the recipient of much wry abuse. Most Americans have their stories about letters late and lost, about a humble federal service that has been eclipsed by jazzy new companies like Federal Express who go coast- to-coast overnight, guaranteed, for something like $13. The US mail takes longer, days longer, lifetimes, but it only costs 32 cents. Perhaps that's why the man and the mule have to walk across deserts - they don't have any other transportation.

Then came word that the tattered man was Kevin Costner, and that The Postman was one of his "special" deliveries. Again, there was as much warning as promise in that description, for just as Costner became very powerful in the picture business in the late Eighties - to the point at which he could do just about anything he wanted - so he has begun lately to garner a reputation for doing things so far-fetched, so strange, yet so earnest and idealistic, that people were wondering how big a fall he was headed for.

Well, The Postman is that fall. For just when everyone in Hollywood was wondering whether Titanic - the most expensive film ever made - would prove a disaster and a humiliation, The Postman obligingly took that role. Word came out of Hollywood that Costner's latest picture - he acts in it, as well as directing and co-producing - was being referred to as "Dirtworld". That was a nod to his earlier epic, Waterworld, which in 1995 was the most expensive picture ever made, and which was written off by critics as misbegotten, naive and waterlogged.

The Postman is very much in line with Waterworld, for they are both stories about a post-apocalyptic world in which the good people (you're tempted to call them "goodies", they're so noble, wholesome and primitive) are trying to battle through hard times but are menaced by cruel, fascistic and very over-acted private armies that seek to impose order by rape, slavery and control of all the weapons left on Earth. When you put the two films together, it becomes clear that Costner has an obsessive view of a threatened America. Don't tell him the Cold War's over, that the economy's thriving, or that Clinton can bluff and lie his way out of every qualm. He sees a nation in which surviving ideology is at war with unbridled outlawry. And whereas in Waterworld he plays a hardened warrior and loner, in The Postman he's a feckless, unremarkable guy, a travelling actor of no great talent or drive who, one night, realises his destiny when he discovers an abandoned mail truck in the forest. The mailman is a skeleton, but the letters are still "live" and waiting to be delivered. So Kevin puts on the dead man's blue uniform and starts to rebuild society by retrieving the postal service.

It's not quite as silly as it sounds - largely because Costner found some startling locations in Oregon (a state that commands forest, mountains, sea shore, rivers, desert and what looks like portions of the moon), and because he cast a little-known English actress, Olivia Williams, in the female lead. She's so strong and so wildly stirring she makes you realise how "relaxed" an actor Kevin can be. Not that he seems threatened.

Nor have many people in America had the pleasure of her performance. The film opened in late December, and it was gone in four or five weeks. Costing at least $80m - with another $30m for those posters, the TV ads and everything that is called promotion - it earned less than $20m. All those servants of the Post Office who had hoped to have their lives and their sad task redeemed had their hearts broken anew. Costner was the hero of the fable, he performed deeds of great daring, and mumbled over his lines - as usual. A few people reckoned he was coming to look like Gary Cooper. But the picture was a laughing stock, and by now there is talk that it had all been one of Kevin's mystical dreams. America doesn't exactly take to the King Arthur type.

Life can take unkind turns, even for a superstar. For it wasn't so long ago that Costner pitched two daft romances as easily dismissed as The Postman.

OK, he had said, I'll be this not-very-smart Iowa farmer who hears voices and builds a baseball field in the middle of nowhere, and - what do you know? - all the great dead players of the past come to play there and they bring my father. We'll call it Field of Dreams. You can hear the laughter when he went to the bathroom, and you can feel the anxieties. But, face to face, Kevin has a way of just eye-balling you and daring you to smile, and that rather quiet, plodding way of talking that drops to a whisper and tells you he really believes in this one. So they made it - and we came! Field of Dreams (1989) was a smash hit, and it got a nomination for Best Picture.

The year after that he went in and said that this time he was going to direct as well as act, and he might as well co-produce, too. This was a story about a maverick cavalry officer who joined the Sioux Indians. It would be a tribute to one of America's great forgotten peoples, and the cavalry would be defeated in the end. "What's it called, Kev?" "Dances with Wolves," he said, "that's the guy's name." It would run three hours. Most studios passed on the project. Finally, the budget (only $18m) was scrambled together from Britain and from Orion, a distributor going out of business. The picture earned over $100m in America alone. It won 12 Oscar nominations, and took the prize for Best Picture and Best Direction. So the track record for laughing at Kevin Costner wasn't so good.

Moreover, those two movies were part of a run of hits strong enough to suggest that with Costner on-screen a project could hardly go wrong. He had been Elliott Ness in the rousing The Untouchables (1987) - he was the plainest of the three leads (next to Sean Connery and Robert De Niro), but he was the good guy. In No Way Out (1986) he was a Soviet spy, but in an American system so full of corruption you had to like him - to say nothing of his love scenes with a jay-bird Sean Young. In Bull Durham (1988), he had been the seasoned personification of minor-league baseball players, doing it for love of the game. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), he did not worry about looking and sounding more modern LA than classical Sherwood, but the movie was a hit. And then he brought his dogged, idealistic attitudes to the role of DA Jim Garrison in JFK (1991), and played the guy as if he belonged in a Frank Capra picture more than in anything by Oliver Stone.

In all that time, only one film - Revenge (1989) - did poorly. Still, Costner was not one to trust the business. He had had several years as an actor in which not much went right. In the early 1980s, for instance, he could get nothing but low-budget exploitation pictures. He did win a role in Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill, but then Kasdan elected to tell the story at a gathering for that character's funeral. So his scenes were never in the movie. Again, he'd had a respectable role in Frances that ended up as just one line. There were some who reckoned he had all the promise in the world - but the curse of bad luck.

Costner will be only 43 this year, and he remains in theory a big star with a large female following. Take The Bodyguard (1992), for instance: that was a script that went back to the days of Steve McQueen. And the Hollywood powers were never sure that Costner would make chemistry with the rather icy Whitney Houston. But Costner thawed every problem away. Houston seemed very interested, and Costner cut his hair close to honour McQueen. Another hit.

Yet, as it happens, that was his last unequivocal success. A Perfect World (1993), directed by and co-starring Clint Eastwood, never quite gripped anyone. The epic Wyatt Earp (1994) - in a reunion with Lawrence Kasdan - was leisurely and picturesque, but a feeble chronicle in which Costner's stolid Earp was overshadowed by Dennis Quaid's highly strung Doc Holliday. Then came The War (1994), an overly obvious message film for kids - and deepening proof of Costner's solemn urge to dig deep into Americana. And Waterworld (1995). And Tin Cup (1996), a nice small movie about golf, a game Costner plays pretty well, but a friendly gesture to writer- director Ron Shelton, who had done Bull Durham.

Late last year, with The Postman in trouble, Costner seemed a little desperate when he gave out the story that he and Diana had been talking about a sequel to The Bodyguard. Not that one didn't appreciate the idea - or imagine a sexual rapport between them. One has the feeling that Costner could do a great love story, if and when he comes to possess the pain of the mature Gary Cooper. Meanwhile: will he play safe? Does he know how to? Or is he likely to gaze at a production meeting and start to whisper, "Fellows, it's after the end of the world ... chaos reigns ... America is in collapse. Until this dentist comes along with a simple message - check- ups. The country begins to stir again ... Guys?"

! 'The Postman' (15): on release from Fri.

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