ROB ROY. Starring Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, John Hurt, Tim Roth and Eric Stoltz. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Opening Thursday on the Panasia Circuit. Category II. CALL me a silly old worry-bags, but a sinking feeling started early on the night they screened Rob Roy. Research (a few idle flicks through movie magazines) and intensive surveys (a chat with a couple of American chums) revealed the film hadn't exactly set the box office on fire Stateside. Then came the bagpipes. Yep, that's right. Preview-goers were greeted by the skirl of the pipes on the steps of the Ocean Theatre in the lowlands of Tsim Sha Tsui. 'Och,' we thought, 'there's a film distributor worried it can't flog its product.' And we were right. The people charged with distributing Rob Roy in Hong Kong must have taken one look at this damp squib of a historical 'epic' and come to a conclusion along the lines of 'so bloody what?'. Those were certainly the words on my lips less than half way through a film that poses more questions than it answers - the biggest being 'why?' Perhaps it's got something to do with the sort of silly studio one-upmanship that led to a rash of appalling Christopher Columbus films a couple of years back. You know, the Hollywood paranoia that leads to us, the audience, being bombarded with three virus movies in the space of a year. We know Mel Gibson has made Braveheart, and there's probably another kilted A-list star somewhere out there, so perhaps that explains Rob Roy. With no disrespect to Scotland and the Scots, I cannot for the life of me understand just what was, or is, so exciting about this bloke. There's certainly nothing in its publicity blurb to explain why a studio should foist his story upon us: At the dawn of the 1700s, famine, disease and the greed of great noblemen were changing Scotland for ever. With many emigrating to the Americas, the centuries-old clan system was slowly being extinguished. This story symbolises the attempt of the individual to withstand these processes and, even in defeat, retain respect and honour. All together now, 'so bloody what?' Liam Neeson (as in, 'ooh, I don't half fancy that Liam Neeson') plays Robert Roy MacGregor, a hard but fair working-class hero who, in the words of Jack Palance, undoubtedly craps bigger than the poncy English noblemen who are ruining his country. Alas, times are hard, and he has to borrow money from one of them (John Hurt). Rob then gets himself into a right pickle and has to go on the run when that money goes missing - thanks to Tim Roth who plays Hurt's evil henchman: a villain who, when he isn't caking his face in make-up, shags a lot. I say 'shags' - that's sexual intercourse to you non-Brits - because the film is so conspicuously boring in terms of script that its makers attempt to imbue its dialogue with an earthy Scottish feel. Words like 'shite' are bandied around by actors who don't seem entirely comfortable with them, and Rob's incredibly virtuous and loyal wife, played by Jessica Lange, spends much of the film's opening either shagging Neeson or talking about it. Still, those who live by the shag, die by the shag, and she finds herself on the wrong end of one of Roth's mood swings, and thereby hangs our tale of vengeance. If all this sounds overly negative and cynical, then so be it. The fact is that it's a real struggle to come up with a justification for the film. In terms of story, it would have been better suited to a one-hour British TV drama - ideal for a Sunday afternoon. In terms of setting and staging, it's alternately dull and unrealistic. When Roth, for instance, leads a rape and pillage assault on our hero's home, you can almost see the production designer's blueprint for 'chaos': a burning piece of thatch here, a slaughtered cow there. Caton-Jones keeps throwing in wide-angle shots of the highlands, but they don't tug at the heart-strings any more than a snapshot of Shek O. The cast flounder along in search of real material. Neeson strides around in muscular fashion, Lange looks terribly cold and miserable, and John Hurt (in nobleman's breeches and wigs) is all pouty lips and indignation. The only interesting character is Roth, whose Cunningham is an utterly over-the-top invention - a cross between drag queen and nasty psychotic assassin. You will undoubtedly be moved to cheer when he dispatches the thoroughly annoying Eric Stoltz, who plays Neeson's right-hand man. And it's a shame that that's the only redeeming feature. I'm afraid Rob Roy is that kind of film: a film that probably shouldn't have been made, and one that no one really needs to see. And the worst thing is, we've still got Mel Gibson's effort to get through.