One of the biggest event films of 1991 is now 30 years old and deserves a dusting off.
Kevin Reynolds’ “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” begins as a buddy film, as Crusade knight Robin of Loxely (Kevin Costner) and Azeem (Morgan Freeman) escape imprisonment in Jerusalem. They make their way to England, where the vicious Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) has taken control over everything.
Robin’s promise to protect Maid Marion (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) drives his decision to steal from the rich and give to the poor: Robin instructs the homeless outsiders how to fight back, protect what is theirs and, most importantly, build their own Ewok Village (“figures sold separately, batteries not included”).
In spite of the nostalgia it will create for ’90s kids giving it a re-watch, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” is neither a classic like “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” nor a thoroughly enjoyable cult favorite like Disney’s “Robin Hood” or “Robin and Marion.”
It’s not even worthy of major critical reconsideration, like Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood.”
The first act is lumbering and clunky, not to mention tonally off-kilter; truly grim, horror-filled and dread-inducing scenes intrude upon a merry tone, or is it the other way around?
The decision to open this in Jerusalem was bold, if off-key. Nevertheless, I liked Costner in these scenes more than the rest of the film.
Costner was miscast in 1991 and everyone knew it. Pre-release gossip gave us reports that he tried and abandoned an English accent. A bigger problem is how utterly modern he comes across, though a greater strike against him is the hairdo, a cross between a mullet and a Flo-be accident.
There’s never enough heft in Costner’s line readings — even trailer-worthy dialog like “It begins” and “We finish this” fall flat.
FAST FACT: “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” arrived in theaters with great fanfare in 1991, earning $165 million at the U.S. box office. That gave it second place for the year, behind “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” which earned $204 million.
In spite of its star, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” takes off in its second act. Reynolds’ burly, exciting film is flawed but clearly laid out the blueprint for further revivals of big-budget, all-star throwbacks to sword and shield Hollywood epics (“Braveheart” and “Gladiator” arrived not long afterward). It’s a rickety movie of moments but, even with Costner’s half-there performance, it works.
This provides an interesting case study in how a major film star, utterly inappropriate for the role assigned, manages to be endearing and have enough fire in his eyes to make him watchable, if never the right fit for the movie.
Costner is constantly being upstaged by his co-stars, which, considering his work-in-progress performance, isn’t a bad thing at all.
No question, Rickman walks off with the movie as the Sheriff of Nottingham, which the actor tossed off during his early villain phase (post-“Die Hard” and “Quigley Down Under”). Rickman plays the Sheriff as a vile, depraved pervert and brings gallows humor and a bonkers energy to his every scene; his pronounced flamboyance is always welcome.
Rickman has a great introduction, as he slowly lowers his mask while astride a horse during a late-night castle raid. Yet, the scene makes no sense — why are they wearing masks in the first place and to what purpose? Never mind, it hardly matters.
Nick Brimble is a terrific Little John (the staff battle to cross the stream is a major highlight and around the time the movie starts to finally develop momentum and consistency) and Michael McShane is a great Friar Tuck. It helps that actors like Brimble and McShane are so enthralling in their work, which allows us us overlook how the main star, recently christened the Best Picture and Best Director Oscar winner for “Dances With Wolves,” is out of his element here.
Freeman has his name above the title alongside Costner and is the far more persuasive lead. It’s too bad he’s stuck playing sidekick, though the screenplay is ambitious to address this: in a degrading touch, Azeem has sworn his life to protect Robin, following him everywhere and acting as his confidant and sometime protector.
It’s a racist stereotype, though the film attempts to address this, like the moment Robin notes how the all-white Merry Men are giving Azeem the cold shoulder. It’s one of the many attempts here at a progressive attitude that flops.
Note how Maid Marion has a strong entrance, physically taking on Robin, but, in her hideous climactic scene, she’s a damsel in distress, trying to fight off a rapist (yuck). By trying to make her strong but remain The Girlfriend, and make Azeem a standout black figure but stick him in The Sidekick position, the two approaches cancel each other out.
Mastrantonio and Freeman are very good here, in spite of the screenplay.
Costner’s natural charm serves his scenes with Mastrantonio — the bit where she distracts him during an archery demonstration and their quiet moments alone work well. The gentle courtship between Robin and Marion is romantic, though underserved. Aside from their meeting in Sherwood Forest, the two don’t have enough scenes together.
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Christian Slater is so contemporary here (even more so than Costner), it’s as though his Will Scarlett arrived in Sherwood Forest by means of a time machine from the future. I’m a big fan of Slater but appearing in this was more of a smart career move than a role he should have played (nevertheless, his outtake-worthy use of the film’s single f-bomb is a priceless, if totally out of place, moment).
At one point, Friar Tuck is intolerant of Azeems’ religious diatribe but the two amend their differences later on, when Azeem is, apparently, the only person in Sherwood Forest who knows how to deliver a baby. It’s a forced bit of demonstrating how two men of different faiths can become friends, but I’ll give the movie credit for even attempting this kind of moralizing in the midst of an already busy story.
With his “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” (1993) arriving two summers later, Mel Brooks was right to go after this movie, as Reynolds’ plotline with a revolting witch is too much.
This way-out-of-left-field subplot, as outrageous as the torture scene that opens the film, isn’t the only, “what-were-they-thinking” touch. Remember, this wasn’t just a summer movie, but a worldwide phenomenon that had an action figure line, a series of TOPPS trading cards, characters with a family-friendly legacy and an ubiquitous, wherever-you-are-I-will-find-you Bryan Adams theme song that stalked humankind in a manner unseen until another Costner film arrived the following year.
Hint: Whitney Houston was also in it.
There’s a brief but harrowing shot of an attempted rape during the siege of Sherwood Forest and many have noted the inappropriately comic tone of another attempted rape during the final battle. A more restrained film would have wisely cut back or eliminated these images altogether, though Reynolds and his star go out of their way to make the legendary man with the green, feathered hat and green tights as “gritty” as can be, but to mixed results.
The amazing arrow-in-flight POV shot from the popular coming attractions preview was wisely put into the rousing training montage (for that matter, James Horner’s score of “Willow” really did sell that trailer). Michael Kamen’s hearty score later became the theme music that plays over the Morgan Creek company logo (an obvious steal from Carolco using their “Rambo” theme over their logo).
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A great climactic duel between Costner and Rickman (and a knockout death for the film’s most grotesque character) lead to the very-rushed final scene which, nevertheless, gets by via a last-minute, mega-watt movie star cameo.
It’s a telling touch- whereas the movie comes up somewhat short for most of the 143-minute running time by positioning the star of “Bull Durham” as our Robin Hood, leave it to the one of the biggest movie stars of all time to walk away with the entire film during its final few seconds.
“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” is best remembered for Costner’s marquee value overcoming his widely disliked performance and for Adam’s Oscar nominated tune, but the film itself has strengths as considerable as its weaknesses.
For all the effort Costner and later Russell Crowe and Taron Egerton put into their interpretations, Errol Flynn’s performance and his beloved 1938 vehicle “The Adventures of Robin Hood” remains the only true cinematic bullseye.