After scoring big in the leading character role of the reluctant protagonist in "Schindler's List," Liam Neeson reaches his heroic and romantic potential with "Rob Roy," a larger-than-life "Robin Hood" character in a period setting that suits the actor very well.
The Irish Neeson stars as the Scottish Rob Roy MacGregor, raising his family in the harsh 18th-century Scottish Highlands and earning his living as a cattle drover, chasing down thieves who steal stock from an uppercrust Englishman, the Marquis of Montrose, and holding personal honor above all.
MacGregor lives with his spirited wife Mary (Jessica Lange, quite believable as a tough Scottish wife and mother) and their two young sons, and he dreams of a better life for them and their neighbors.
So, when he comes up with the idea of buying and selling his own cattle, he borrows 1,000 pounds from the Marquis (John Hurt). But he doesn't count on the Marquis' duplicitous nephew Archie Cunningham (Tim Roth), who is weary of living off his uncle's good graces, and who sees this 1,000 pounds as his big score.
When the money disappears before MacGregor can use it, he returns to the Marquis and asks for some extra time. He also asks for a second loan. As you might expect, the Marquis laughs in his face and demands payment. Or, MacGregor could do him a favor — a favor that would require him to go against his code of honor. Naturally, MacGregor refuses, and when he is threatened with prison, he literally heads for the hills.
The Marquis puts Cunningham in charge of the small army that is sent to look for MacGregor, to bring him back and force him to face charges. And, of course, Cunningham has his own reasons for wanting MacGregor dead.
Unaware that Cunningham has stolen his money, MacGregor continues to underestimate the man, however, until Cunningham declares war by first shooting MacGregor's dog, then burning his home to the ground and, most horribly, raping his wife, Mary.
And ultimately, there will be a climactic duel-to-the-death sword fight. And Cunningham has already received praise as the greatest swordsman in the land.
Neeson is wonderful here, earnest and righteous, equally ready with a low-key quip or, if necessary, a sword in his hand. And Lange, in a smaller role, matches him move for move. Also good are Hurt, as the pompous Marquis, and Eric Stoltz as Neeson's best friend.
But the showstopper here is Tim Roth, as Cunningham. If ever there was a starmaking role, this is it. His character is required to play the fop for his uncle, then drop the act whenever he leaves his presence and adopt his true character, that of a cunning, evil manipulator. Roth is wonderfully wicked as one of the screen's most thoroughly evil bad guys.
There are places where the film drags a bit, some scenes tend to go on too long and occasionally redundant dialogue belabors the obvious. And often the film is simply too dark and dingy.
Still, there is enough rousing adventure and strong characterizations to make it worth the effort, and in the end it's a satisfying adventure.
"Rob Roy" is rated R for swordplay and violence, including the aforementioned rape, with some profanity, sex and nudity.