The DVDs Audiences Forgot: the films of Kevin Costner

There are certain things that, perhaps, are better off being left unsaid, such as a fondness for exposing oneself in public, or a former career in pimping male gigolos. To those of us who don't move in quite such dangerous circles, there instead lies the risk of declaring that one likes the films of, say, Michael Winner or Mariah Carey, a marriage made in an incompetent heaven if ever there was one. It's therefore a bit strange than Kevin Costner, an actor who was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, now has a career where his every film is dismissed as a ego-laden failure before it even opens (despite still being paid a vast amount for each of them), and is roundly mocked for being a pompous, wooden waste of cinematic space, which means that stating a public fondness for his films is the sort of statement that normally attracts ridicule.
This is, by and large, unfair. Although Costner has made some fairly undistinguished films in his career (Message in a Bottle and The Bodyguard both spring jauntily to mind), it's hard to think that he's ever made a bona fide bad one, at least apart from Sizzle Beach USA, which has, thankfully, almost been forgotten, except by obsessive followers of 80s softcore pornography. He has made some acknowledged classics, such as Dances with Wolves and JFK, and a remarkably high number of high-class genre pieces, ranging from Silverado to last year's excellent Thirteen Days, a film that showed even his staunchest critics that he was still able to pick a decent script. However, two of the films that he came in for the most criticism about were 3000 Miles to Graceland and The Postman, both of which I now propose to defend, living up to my brief of this being an 'overlooked and forgotten films' column…

3000 Miles to Graceland
Films about Elvis, and Elvis impersonators, tend to be comic by definition; there's something intrinsically funny about middle-aged men dressing up like a talented but unintentionally self-parodic singer, and then making pompous comments about 'the King'. However, Damian Lichtenstein's ambitious idea was to combine jokes about Elvis with a heist-gone-right-then-wrong plot, with a cast full of slightly past their peak superstars (Costner, Kurt Russell, Courteney Cox) with some entertaining character actors (David Arquette, Kevin Pollak), some very obscure but nonetheless amusing pop culture references, many revolving around the Russell/Elvis connections of his past, and a great deal of overblown but very stylised violence. With Costner's presence acting like a red rag to a bull, critics panned the film for being, in Roger Ebert's words, 'a sour and mean-spirited enterprise so desperate to please, it tries to be a yukky comedy and a hard-boiled action picture at the same time.' The result was a box office flop, and commercial oblivion (it has yet to receive a UK cinema or DVD release.)
However, Ebert's judgement, while technically correct, misses the point. The film's major appeal is in the cheerful way that it takes generic staples such as the single mother with a heart of gold (Cox), the con trying to go straight (Russell) and the insane villain (Costner) and both observes them, and utterly ridicules them. None of the characters, Elvis impersonators or others, are ever at all sympathetic, which makes the various unpleasant things that happens to them highly entertaining, albeit in a manner that owes a great deal to black comedy; by the absurdly overblown finale, which comes across like a modernised version of The Wild Bunch to the accompaniment of My Way, sung by Paul Anka (who has a cameo) rather than Sinatra or Elvis, it's hard not to have tapped into the infectious feeling of offbeat wackiness that the film offers. Had this been made by Jim Jarmusch or Hal Hartley, it would have doubtless been acclaimed to the skies for its 'daring surrealism' and 'off-kilter humour'; because it was a knowingly goofy take on an especially absurd sub-genre of films, it was instead ridiculed. Costner is easily the best thing about the film, as well, showing a real flair for scenery-chewing villainy; perhaps he picked up a few tips from Alan Rickman on Robin Hood.
The R1 DVD offers excellent picture and sound quality, but, disappointingly, lacks any extras other than a trailer; a special edition was supposed to feature deleted scenes and a director's commentary, amongst other things, but Warners presumably decided that not enough people would be interested in buying it to make their inclusion worthwhile. This is something of a shame, as, if the rumours were to be believed, both Costner and Russell were allowed to have a go at preparing cuts of the film; Costner's, a more action-orientated version, was apparently more popular. The only other version of the DVD available is an R4 one, which apparently adds little in the way of features other than a 12-minute 'behind the scenes featurette'. Given that both can be picked up cheaply, there would appear to be little to choose between them.

The Postman
There are two ways of looking at The Postman. The first is to attempt to assess it as a brave, epic and daringly intelligent look at a post-apocalyptic wilderness where a postman comes to be seen as a symbol for dormant heroism and long-buried humanity. This would probably work were it not for the film's script, which contains such crackingly overwritten lines as 'Postman, you hand out hope as if it were candy from your pocket!' and other, similar bits of unintentional hilarity. The other way of looking at the film, and one probably closer to Costner's intention, is as an enjoyable, overlong, and occasionally provocative adventure film, with some fascinatingly original ideas which counterbalance the occasionally appalling script.
The basic plot was much criticised for what many saw as its latent absurdity; how, they sneered, are we supposed to believe that a failed, second-rate actor (Costner- and yet people say he has no sense of humour!) can somehow become a hero and a leader of men?? The answer is that the film does not offer an easy answer to the question; the central character is never supposed to be conventionally heroic, at least not until the rabble-rousing climax, but instead is a self-serving, cowardly failure, who becomes overjoyed at the prospect of masquerading as a postman because, finally, it offers him the opportunity to have sex with women, given that he is one of the few remaining 'fertile' men in the country. There's certainly a vein of black comedy running through the script by Brian (LA Confidential) Helgeland and Eric (The Insider) Roth, which was based on David Brin's supposedly superb novel, but most critics simply dismissed it as egotistical bathos on Costner's part. I'd argue that a large part of the film's humour is in fact intentional; either way, it's still far more entertaining than people have allowed it credit for. Costner also deserves acclaim for introducing the lovely Olivia Williams to the screen; with admirable discretion, she later described working on the film as 'like being on holiday, and being paid for it.'
The R1 and R2 DVDs are more or less identical, with strong anamorphic transfers and good, dynamic 5.1 soundtracks. Neither have extras of any great interest on; there is a 10 minute documentary about the special effects, some production notes and a trailer. Of course, the DVD was put out at a time when Warner was seen as easily the best DVD producing studio, whereas now it is commonly regarded as one of the worst. Plus ca change. The film can often be picked up very cheaply indeed; for anyone anxious to see if it really was all that bad, it's probably worth picking up, especially as there's growing support for it amongst those who, like me, were very pleasantly surprised when they finally saw it.

Coming soon…
Next week, I'll be looking at the bizarrely neglected genre of historical cannibal comedy films, as directed by women, that somehow manage to retain artistic merit. It's easy when you know how…

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