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Review: Return 'Postman' to sender

Postman January 14, 1998
Web posted at: 4:15 p.m. EST (2115 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I used to describe Kevin Costner as a big glass of warm water. Before his likable, persona-defining work in "Bull Durham," I had a hard time even remembering what he looked like when he exited a scene. Then he'd come back again, and I couldn't focus on him. He started working in better films eventually, like "The Untouchables," and, of course, the often impressive "Dances With Wolves," but there's still something about Costner that isn't quite there even when he's standing right in front of you.

It's tough to put my finger on exactly what that something is, but I'm working on it. His line readings often sound hollow to me, as if he can't generate the proper passion to really be bothered. And his self-described "boyish enthusiasm" (he's the only movie star to ever point out his own aw-shucks guile during an Oscar acceptance speech) is sometimes ladled on in lieu of truly inhabiting a character. Something is missing all right, but, with the opening of "The Postman," it's become terribly obvious that the wayward element in Costner's make-up isn't his ego.

Costner also directed "The Postman," so that might explain the portentousness with which his every word and gesture is presented in the movie. Of course, this is Kev, so he grins and shakes it all off when it happens ... but we still have to sit there and watch people compliment him for over three hours. "The Postman" is an ill-advised foray into post-apocalyptic saviorhood for Costner, and if you don't buy its initial simple-headed conceit, you're in for a very long trip. Mine started when Costner "amusingly" performed some Shakespeare with his donkey (they pretend to get in a sword fight), and his downtrodden onscreen audience practically lines up to touch the hem of his tattered garment for the achievement. Aw shucks, it wasn't anything.

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"The Postman"
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Mate the Road Warrior with Jimmy Stewart's patriotic Mr. Smith and throw in a dash of Billy Jack's self-righteous butt-kickin' and you've got yourself "The Postman." Costner is a nameless man who wonders across a war-torn landscape full of shattered 76 stations and 7-Elevens. Water has to be tested for radiation before you drink it, and (for who knows what reason) there are lions walking around.

People are split off into two basic societies, the good guys (who like to dance to gee-tar music and watch jackasses perform Shakespeare) and The Holnists, a Fascist warring faction lead by General Bethlehem (Will Patton). Bethlehem suffers from worse delusions of grandeur than Costner's character does, forcing the good townspeople to hand over their food and valuables while kidnapping the healthier ones to serve in his army. He bellows out a lot of over-heated speeches and slits the throats of randomly selected soldiers just to prove who's the boss. (Hint: It's not Tony Danza.)

After being recruited into the Holnist army (They eat his mule!) and escaping, Costner finds a bag of mail and a postman's uniform on a skeleton out in the woods. This gets him through the gates of one secluded town, and he's treated (you guessed it) like the King of the World because mail brings hope to the forlorn and makes people look into the future when all seems lost.

I'm not kidding. That's actually what the movie's about. People get misty-eyed and the music swells and, at one point, a ratty-looking little girl begins singing "America the Beautiful" while Costner rides away on his horse to deliver another load of letters. It's an absolute hoot, some of the most bizarre foolishness I've ever seen in a supposedly serious film made by somebody who's proven that he's capable of much, much better.

Pretty soon, The Postman is being viewed by the Holnists as an affront to their sensibilities, and, though I found General Bethlehem and his troops to be extremely distasteful, at least we have that as common ground. The last time I was at the post office, I had to stand in line for 30 minutes while the people behind the counter moved around like they were in "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau." It never occurred to me to belt out a patriotic showstopper or to shout hosannas at a letter carrier.

The movie looks good, anyway, but it's just too silly for words. You know there's going to be a big showdown with the Holnists, but the prelude to it (aka "the rest of the movie") is mind-boggling in its misconception. Costner and his mule should've put on a performance of "Much Ado About Nothing." Besides, I couldn't help thinking that, given the proper postal workers, a Fascist, gun-toting horde wouldn't stand a chance.

"The Postman" has some rather barbaric violence and a little bit of nudity. It's about as inspiring as a movie about a vengeful meter reader. 170 minutes. Rated R.

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