While the recent Come See the Paradise and Jungle Fever have confronted interracial romance with admirable directness, remember the topic has been raised before. A Patch of Blue, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Sayonara, among other films, addressed the issue, and then there were all those settler-Indian frontier flirtations, from The Last of the Mohicans to Duel in the Sun.

Gabriel Byrne, Amanda Donohoe

It's more opaque than dark, but they got the obsession part right.

This is another manifestation of the British fascination with their own decline. Not only is the sun setting on the British empire all the time, but the Brits love nothing better than to stand there pointing out that it's going down.

The metaphorical vehicle in this case is a grim, intermittently intriguing tale that recalls Ghost Story. A drunken Byrne is driving a car with four buddies—three of them soldiers—when he kills a woman in a hit-and-run accident. They all conspire to cover up the incident.

The soldiers' sense of honor is hollow. Byrne is a lord but is derided by the head of the investment house he works at. There is even a raggedy-looking Jaguar and a criminal incident right at the white cliffs of Dover.

The only thing missing in the de-cline-and-fall area is a World Cup match where Britain gets trounced by Trinidad and Tobago or Sri Lanka.

Byrne is unusually convincing as a near-catatonic wretch who moons about in devotion to his wife, L.A. Law's icily impressive Donohoe. Struan Rodger oozes ruthlessness as Byrne's boss.

Director Nick Broomfield, a documentary maker heretofore, leaves too much in a muddle. One soldier, for instance, seems to decide to turn Byrne in because he thinks Byrne was trying to kill his wife in the accident, when his wife wasn't even there.

The sex involving Byrne and Donohoe is routine by today's standards. The rating may come from Byrne's lovemaking techniques, which tend to lots of pinching. This too is probably related to Britain's demise, but we'll have to think about how. (NC-17)

Kevin Costner, Alan Rickman, Morgan Freeman

Frailty, thy name is Kevin. This is a big, colorful, sharp-witted and beautifully photographed rendering of the tale of the olde English guerrilla fighter—two solidly entertaining hours.

But it can never supplant the classic 1938 version of the story because Costner, as Robin, is upstaged, overshadowed and outacted by Rickman as the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham and by Freeman as a Muslim sidekick Robin acquires when he is taken prisoner during the Crusades.

True, as written by Pen Densham and John Watson, this is a sensitive, new-age kind of Robin Hood. He cries, he gets flustered when he loses his sword, and he breaks down when he sees a body. He even asks a foe, "Did I wrong you in a previous life?"

With his high-pitched voice, flat inflections and Dobie Gillis—like all-Americanness, though, Costner never shows anything like the charisma he needs to inspire a pack of forlorn outlaws to fight a well-armed, tyrannical despot. While he looks great—though it doesn't help him that many of his action scenes involve obvious doubles—when he opens his mouth, you want to run back, hide in the forest and just poach deer on weekends.

Costner certainly never approaches the zest Errol Flynn gave to the role. (And remember, Flynn faced a formidable supporting cast too.)

Rickman, Die Hard's urbane bad guy, camps it up mightily. He has most of the film's best lines: "No more humane beheadings," he snarls in one tantrum. "And call off Christmas." But he also turns some routine dialogue most adroitly.

Freeman overcomes a bushel of aren't-these-Christians-a-hoot lines as the stalwart right-hand man. Nick Brimble as Little John and Soo Drouet as Little John's rough-hewn wife fit the movie's broad style too. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio effectively turns the main heroine's role into Ms. Marian, bullying people in ways that would have shocked Olivia de Havilland.

Director Kevin Reynolds gives the movie pace, energy and high spirits. Second-unit directors Mark Illsley and Max Kleven are worth noting too, so stirring are the fight scenes.

Be prepared for graphic violence, a mindless joke based on a rape attempt and dunderheaded obscenity. (Does it serve any function to have a character say, "Well, f—- me!"?) Stand ready to note that when Costner says, "I would die for you," he puts so little feeling into it, he might as well be saying, "You're standing on my foot."

But be in a forgiving mood. You'll have a splendid time and can while away idle moments musing about who would make a better Robin. Anyone suggesting Sean Penn or Bruce Willis is automatically disqualified. (PG-13)

Dermot Mulroney, Lili Taylor

Portraying a good-hearted but wary 18-year-old, Mulroney herewith makes a place for himself among the most affecting cinematic portrayals of youth confronting the baffling realities of growing up.

Sweeter-tempered than James Dean in East of Eden, less embittered than Marlon Brando in The Wild One but still a certifiable Lost Youth, Mulroney (Longtime Companion) makes a maximum impact with a minimalist performance as a Montana boy.

Much of what he does is to flinch and recoil as a series of disorienting events—his parents' breakup, a meeting with an eccentric young woman, random violence—wrench the innocence out of him. But he conveys volumes with a hopelessly hopeful grin.

Just as well, too, because first-time director Michael Fields and screenwriter Richard Ford (the novelist) give him a lot to do. Fields virtually alternates between picturesque vistas of his Montana and Wyoming locations and close-ups of Mulroney's face. Ford's script is an epigram-athon—pretty good epigrams at that, but after a while the style calls more attention to itself: "Harsh words are all alike."

Taylor (Mystic Pizza) is equally winning as a rambunctious Canadian en route to spring her brother from a Wyoming jail. "Tell me what you've done that's shameful, even though I've done worse," she tells Mulroney. "I've done nothing," he says, and she nails the next line: "That's shameful."

Familiar faces drop in and out. The too rarely seen Mary Kay Place is Mulroney's see-no-evil aunt. And as Mulroney's railroad-brakeman father, Sam Shepard is terrific, even if he has played so many wizened Westerners by now that he is in danger of becoming the intellectual Gabby Hayes.

Fields and Ford throw in too many symbolic moments—we get the point about the gun-bearing subculture after three or four men pull out a weapon—but their film maintains a rare intensity. Mulroney, one halting step at a time, keeps it moving and gives it its sense of stubborn optimism. (R)

>KINDERGARTEN COP: MR. CHIPS GOES TO THE GYM

SURPRISINGLY FUNNY AND CHARMING, ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER is a cop working undercover as a teacher. Director Ivan Reitman gets too violent but nicely uses Schwarzenegger, Penelope Ann Miller as Arnold's love interest, Linda Hunt as a principal, Richard Tyson as a weird villain and a witchy Carroll Baker as Tyson's mom. There are also 30 or so child actors who would run off with the film if they could get Arn out of the way. (MCA)