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"THE POSTMAN" is an excruciatingly bad, dumb and pretentious western that thinks it's a sci-fi movie. In other words, it's a "What Ho! Dusty Stranger" movie set in the year 2013 when wars and plagues and worse have finally finished the job cable TV started and atomized America into paranoid little enclaves.

Kevin Costner -- who also directed and developed the script (for which read "turned it into a very long star vehicle") -- plays the dusty stranger, a parasite actor who wanders the West cadging food and living by his wiles and wits. Think Mad Max and about 7,000 honest-to-Shane westerns before him. One day, he discovers the skeleton of a long-dead postman. He snags the guy's jacket and hat and delivers some of his ancient mail in exchange for food. It seems the local towns are beset by a murderous general (Will Patton) who periodically swoops into town grabbing supplies and jewels and women. Think Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" here and its American offspring "The Magnificent Seven."

The very idea of a postman for the re-formed United States of America sets off a fervor of resistance and nationhood.

The movie is based on a novel by David Brin, and the basic metaphor of the postal service as nascent nationhood isn't just good, it's fascinating. A gutsy and creative filmmaker -- the Kevin Costner, say, who gave us "Dances With Wolves" seven years ago -- could have made a remarkable movie out of it.

Unfortunately, the Kevin Costner we've had since "Dances With Wolves" insisted, as star, on bloating "Wyatt Earp" beyond reason, made the most expensive flop ever, "Waterworld," and is a menace to patient, decent filmgoers everywhere. As the movie ground on to its 2-hour-and-50-minute length, people at the screening walked out in large clumps for the last 45 minutes. I was sitting on the aisle and got a look at some of their faces. Some looked utterly defeated by the movie, as if they wanted to like it but just gave up in exasperation. Some looked at those who remained with expressions that said: "What are you? Nuts? Why aren't you leaving?"

There are striking photographic images all through the movie. And middling action scenes. And Costner, bless him forever, continues to have an eye for the grown-up male idea of female beauty. (The heroine here is British actress Olivia Williams, almost as disarming as Mary McDonnell was in "Dances With Wolves.")

By far the most annoying dimwit mega-budget twaddle of the season.

The Postman
Rating: **
Against the odds, Kevin Costner delivers the mail and starts America again in the year 2013. Directed by Costner. Rated R, opening today in area theaters.

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