By Zachary Woodruff
IN THE REAL world, the symptoms of male menopause are easy to spot. You see them at traffic lights: men in their 40s, defiantly revving up their glossy new convertible sports cars while tightening their leather-gloved grips around the steering wheel. With each "vroom" of the engine you can almost hear their psyches screaming out, "I'm virile, dammit, I'm virile!"
In Hollywood acting circles, the symptoms of male menopause are often similar, as witnessed whenever an actor attempts to turn himself into James Bond. But more ambitious sufferers of male menopause take matters a step further: They turn themselves into walking representations of pure masculine virtue.
That's why when Kevin Costner grew his hair out to play Robin Hood, the movie featured the actor not only redistributing wealth, but running around delivering babies too. In the upcoming Braveheart, Mel Gibson also grows his hair out, this time to play a Scotsman who embodies man's struggle to lead a full life. "Every man dies. Not every man really lives," he says in the preview, as ominous wind whooshes in the background.
With Rob Roy, Liam Neeson takes his turn at bat. His hair grown out, Neeson plays a Scottish clan leader who is respected, intelligent, fair and Virile with a capital V. When he returns to his idyllic highland home after a long journey, he bathes naked in a nearby lake and then waltzes, still naked, inside the dark abode, where he puts his broad, protective arms around his children.
These children don't appear anywhere else in the movie, but they do give Rob Roy a chance to spell out the movie's theme. Early on, out of nowhere, one of the kids blurts out, "Daddy, what is Honor?" Neeson then makes a nice speech about how "Honor is a man's gift to himself," after which he sends the kids away so he can make love to his robust-spirited wife (Jessica Lange) while leaning against a huge, phallic rock. The filmmakers might as well have just tattooed "Honor" and "Virility" on Neeson's forehead.
Back in the village, Neeson leads a group of merry men who regularly use words like "buggering" and "shagging." When they're not asking each other to step outside to fight, the clan make jokes about the non-virility of the English: "Why don't the English shag standing up? Because it might lead to dancing."
The trouble with Rob Roy as a movie is that it appears to be made by people who fit that joke. The film is lullingly ponderous about its simple-minded theme, but when the action scenes finally come, they lack oomph. For example, when one of Rob Roy's loyal men, played with dull conviction by Eric Stoltz, is ambushed in the forest, his murder is cross-edited with soft-focus scenes of Neeson and family sitting around the campfire listening to a woman who appears to be Enya's cousin. This isn't exactly gut-level stuff.
Rob Roy's plot follows the structure of melodrama, with no character development and all the action happening to the protagonists, not because of them. Neeson becomes a fugitive after he honorably refuses to bear false witness for the governing Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt), and for the rest of the movie we see him fleeing from soldiers, carrying wounded friends up the mountains, hiding in a maggoty carcass, and so on. (The movie's sense of realism is poor: At one point Neeson is so badly beaten his face looks like a slab of tenderized beef, but two scenes later he looks fresh as a cherub.)
Worse yet, we are subjected to the sight of the ultra-talented Jessica Lange being raped. There's no telling why such a terrific actor as Lange agreed to play this part, but one can only guess it had less to do with the artistic merits of the script than with the prospect of spending several weeks in the Scottish Highlands, which are quite beautiful.
Besides those beautiful highlands, the best thing going in Rob Roy is Tim Roth, who plays Cunningham, a bored, British conspirator-for-hire who eventually becomes Rob Roy's nemesis. He's also Rob Roy's thematic opposite: He lacks any shred of honor, and with his bitchy personality and frilly clothes you never associate him with masculine virility either. But boy, can he swordfight. He's an odd creation, and a perfect villain for this kind of movie. In the final, one-on-one battle between Roth and Neeson, the sheer physical differences of the two men creates a visual drama that overrides anything the story has to offer. Neeson makes a great hulking embodiment of virtue, Roth a wonderful, cat-like specimen of nastiness. If only Rob Roy had worked up to this conflict sooner--much sooner--the picture might have left me fawning instead of yawning.
Rob Roy is playing at Century Park (6200750) and El Dorado (745-6241) cinemas.
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