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Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 16, 2009

    Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves Review

    “How is it that a once-arrogant young nobleman has found contentment, living rough with the salt of the earth?”

    It is difficult to even begin to discuss this hugely popular 1991 vanity project from Kevin Costner without that bloody song from Bryan Adams quivering through your brain. It drugged the charts at the number one slot for far too many weeks and is now an eye-rolling, yawn-inducing dirge.

    But, looking back on the popcorn movie that totally eclipsed another Robin Hood production in the same year - Patrick Bergin's much less ambitious, but still very enjoyable take - is it actually any better than the banal ballad that serenaded it? Released on BD in its extended edition - adding twelve minutes of witchcraft, castle surprises and merry malarkey - it is time to take a look and see if Robin Hood can still hit the bullseye.

    After escaping from a Saracen dungeon with Morgan Freeman's Moorish warrior Azeem in tow, Kevin Costner's battle-weary crusader, Sir Robin Of Locksley, returns to his beloved England to find his homeland under the tyrannical rule of the scheming, traitorous Sheriff Of Nottingham (Alan Rickman on fine, dastardly form). With his father, the righteous and noble Lord Locksley (Brian Blessed) murdered and his home razed to the ground, Robin discovers that he has fled one war only to begin another. Sort of like the once-patriotic John Rambo returning home to find another conflict taking place, Robin is forced to fall back on his own exceptional skills with bow and arrow and to wage a guerrilla campaign against the Sheriff, his cousin, the brutal Sir Guy Of Gisbourne (Michael Wincott), and their sadistic soldiers. In time-honoured fashion, he meets the colourful characters who will form his band of Merry Men - among them Nick Brimble's quarterstaff-swinging Little John, comedian Mike McShane's Friar Tuck, Christian Slater's treacherous Will Scarlet - and, with the staunch belief that the benevolent and just King John will, one day, return from the Crusades to claim back his throne from those who would seek to depose him, he sets about robbing from the rich and giving the proceeds to the poor, correcting the status quo and fighting injustice. With Sherwood Forest soon coming under his command, Robin and his band of drunken, peasant-outlaws are able to derail the Sheriff's nefarious plans for a time, their fame and popularity with the masses growing day by day and fanning the flames of revolt as a consequence, but their luck cannot hold and the Sheriff eventually finds a way of hitting this renegade upstart where it hurts. The two arch-enemies are destined to go toe-to-toe before any sort of peace is returned to Nottingham.

    Kevin Costner was on the boil during this period, what with Dances With Wolves, Waterworld and The Bodyguard straddling almost the entire cinematic quality spectrum between them - from classic through to flaccid, but all money-spinning crowd-pullers. And playing Robin Hood, as so many greats and no-so-greats have attempted to do over the decades, was hardly a surprising thing for Hollywood to expect his ego to cope with. But, although I like Costner - well, to a point, at any rate - I have to concede with many a critic that he makes for a thoroughly lousy Robin Hood. Oh, his performance is often likeable, as is much of the rest of the film as well, but he is so horribly self-aware and so damned American that any and all disbelief suspension is lost and his credibility as the man-in-the-hood comes crashing from the trees like a lead arrow. Immature, and stupefyingly bland, he just doesn't have the screen presence to make you accept that he could win the hearts and minds of the downtrodden, let alone lead them into battle. Hopelessly ill-at-ease with the camaraderie that Robin has to extol, some of his moments here are simply cringe-worthy. His wallowing luxuriously in the shallows of the English coastline strikes such a particularly low note - and right at the start of the film as well - that you wouldn't have thought it possible for him to get any worse. But, oh, he can. The evidence, your Honour -

    Exhibit A: Costner's pasty-white butt on show in one of cinema's most ludicrous nude scenes.

    Exhibit B: when a family revelation is slapped in his face, it is only because Costner's acting is so unforgivably awful that Christian Slater's, by comparison, looks so good. “I have a brother? I have a ... brother ...” D'uh.

    Exhibit C: he delivers speeches that are completely lamentable, forgettable and lifeless, and most of them are dwarfed by even the most casual aside from any of his Merry Men.

    Exhibit D: his fighting skills are dreadful - merely flinging a sword around and barely managing to keep hold of it. Though this does, at least, mean that when the equally clumsy Alan Rickman starts twirling a preposterously big blade during the final skirmish, the two look evenly matched.

    And, perhaps most damning of all, your Honour ... Exhibit E: Costner's hair! Just what the hell is going on with that ridiculous thatch of hideously thinning mullet? Forget Van Damme's bizarre ringlet extensions in Hard Target. Forget Mad Mel's bouffant in Lethal Weapon. Forget even Gene Wilder's fluffy Twiglet 'do in Young Frankenstein! Forget Nicolas Cage's ... ah, well ... maybe not Nicolas Cage, eh? But Costner's bedraggled tuft is such a sheer embarrassment that he really should have put an Errol Flynn feathered cap upon his head to keep some semblance of machismo.

    So many of his scenes echo with the crack of his sullenly wooden performance that you may genuinely come to believe that you are in Sherwood Forest alongside him. Barring his winning turn in the fun Western, Silvarado, or, better yet, as crusading Mob-buster Elliot Ness in The Untouchables, Costner just isn't a good team player. He is much better, and far more memorable at portraying introverted, troubled characters who have to either get something off their chests - Field Of Dreams - or do some radical soul searching - Dances With Wolves. I can't help but get the impression that his sudden popularity, critical acclaim and showbiz clout in the wake of his multi-Oscar-nabbing Native Indian re-addressing actually bullied him into roles such as this one, and the equally daft gill-man in Waterworld, when common-sense was probably urging him to do otherwise. Certainly, he makes for a limp and really rather poor hero. Robin Hood, whether you go for the exuberant Errol Flynn persona - which will never be bettered - or the authentic, woodland grunt that Russell Crowe seems to be adopting for Ridley Scott's hotly anticipated version, just has to have a larger-than-life aura about him. He unites a beleaguered, suppressed underclass and challenges the corrupt and decadent nobility that rides roughshod all over them. Kevin Coster, under the direction of Kevin Reynolds, who would go on to get the star even further out of his depth in Waterworld, so obviously play-acts his way through this that you can almost feel the heat from his burning cheeks. We can no more believe that he is skilled warrior than we can believe that his slow, emotionless accent hails from Nottingham. With no variety, energy or wit to his permanently sleepy, smirking and hesitant approach to derring-do, it is only Rickman's surly, snarly, hissing and spitting Sheriff that is able to keep our attention.

    And, boy, does he have his work cut out for him?

    For, undoubtedly, what saves the movie from the embarrassing mediocrity that the two Kevins would have allowed it to descend into, is the former stage actor who, after wowing the world with such a charismatic and left-field villain as Die Hard's Hans Gruber, was on home ground as the supremely whisker-twirling big bad guy of the piece. Replete with a flowing mane of raven-black hair and a manic case of frustrated impatience, his Sheriff is patently absurd and played, by necessity, for laughs. Sort of crossed between the under-achieving black sheep of the Gruber family and the egocentric buffoon who faces off against Tom Selleck's wily, displaced bushwhacker in the great Quigley Down Under, Rickman's Sheriff steals the show from Costner with considerable ease and doesn't even give him a single shred of it back. Egged-on by the mysterious Mortianna (Geraldine “Miss Marple” McEwan), the crone-witch hidden within the walls of his castle, driven insane by the continual ineptitude of his penitent minions, and constantly outwitted by his forest-based nemesis, the Sheriff is a broadly-played distillation of seething resentment, sexual obsession and riotously spoilt bratishness. Running about in a state of never-ending nervous anxiety, inspecting his own statues for new graffiti, cancelling Christmas and threatening to carve out hearts with a spoon, he is the spark of life that this film so dearly needs. Providing a very theatrical and devoutly English antidote to the Hollywood sap that permeates the script and the leads, Rickman is also in danger of going so over-the-top that he could very well disappear over the castle ramparts and never be seen again. But his excesses remain just the right side of stratospheric and, like a Dark Age Basil Fawlty, he rules the roost with brazen idiocy.

    “He's a trusting fool. He'll believe me. And if he doesn't, he'll kill me. Then you've lost nothing.”

    “If you fail, I will personally remove your lying tongue.”

    But if the writers and the director manage to leave the mighty Rickman alone - to be fair, they probably kept in the shadows whenever he leapt into character - they don't let many of the others in the cast off so lightly.

    Christian Slater, like Costner and the bellicose McShane, is too, too American to give Will Scarlet any hope of viewer empathy. His belligerence to the new woodland doctrine and his animosity towards Robin is penny-dreadful stuff. Whilst it is only right that we get to hear his infamous f-bomb in this extended edition - and the fact that it was a genuine curse going even further back to Saxon times notwithstanding - it sounds utterly preposterous issuing from his lips in such a setting and colloquially out-of-context. And how about old Duncan, the faithful attendant to the House of Locksley who has had his eyes put out by the Sheriff's louts? Poor Walter Sparrow, who plays the daft and luckless codger must have creased-up with laughter after every single one of his “blind” scenes - or, at least, I hope he did. I can still remember the audience reaction at the flicks all those years ago whenever this dedicated duffer stumbled about the frame, humbly crooning for his master. Yep - absolute hysterics. “Point me in the direction of the danger, I'm ready!” he requests at one potentially feisty moment, doggedly determined to acquit himself in the service of Robin despite his inability to see an enemy even a hundred feet tall. And the less said about his dumbfounded trek, on horseback no less, across miles and miles of rough terrain to warn Robin of the Sheriff's latest outrage, the better. “You be my eyes now, old friend,” he implores his guide-horse. Now, you could argue that he is there as a pure homage to many similar characters seen in the Golden Age dramas that the film seeks to emulate, but I'm afraid that I just don't buy it. He is symptomatic of a script that simply never knows when to draw the line between adventure and farce. And this is endemic to why the film feels so contrived and actually uncomfortable when viewed now. We have lots of bawdy medieval swearing and some lusty behaviour from the Merry Men. There is, indeed, some violence - Duncan's gouged eyes, a decomposing body in a gibbet, a young lad twisting in slow strangled agony at the end of a noose - and lots of inferred sexual activity, but almost everything that has even an ounce of seriousness to it is then undone by the ensuing pantomime reactions that follow.

    Arguably, what does work, however, is Costner's relationship with Freeman. Of course, it shouldn't actually work at all, should it? The very notion of a Moor being relocated to Olde England and beholden to Robin Of Locksley for a life-debt is outright laughable, as is the sight of someone of Freeman's stature - remember, this was at a time before he lapsed into “take the money and run” roles such as those in Outbreak, Dreamcatcher and Hard Rain - prancing about the woods, delivering difficult babies and, rather pathetically, showing peasants how to fight. Mind you, it is much more believable than the token black guy who happens along in Sherwood in the Beeb's risible Saturday evening version of the tale with Jonas Armstrong in the title role. Sulky comments about England's lack of sun and some ethnic wheezes are made, somehow, more palatable with Freeman's empirical voice uttering them. A moment when he and Robin try to break through a door using the Sheriff's statue is given some subtle humour when Azeem rues the “damned English Oak” that simply won't yield to their improvised battering-ram. But the whole “painted man” prophecy that surrounds him via mad Mortianna's blood, spit and bone omens, feels hackneyed and last-ditch.

    The presence of the great Brian Blessed is something to savour, of course, even if it does only last for a couple of minutes. You get the impression that the Yanks felt that a medieval English romp just couldn't have happened without him, and used him almost like a stamp of authenticity. Sadly, later confessions regarding the relationship between Locksley Snr. and Locksley Jnr. lack any depth due to Costner's inability to imbue his outlaw with even a meagre scrap of dimensionality.

    “Marian, I've returned to my home to find it destroyed, and my father murdered! And the only clues to why are in the ramblings of an old blind man.”

    You want to see him ride a horse, mate!

    Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is actually quite decent as the comely maid, Marian, and there is a certain playfulness afforded her more earthy Lady by regular writing/producing duo Pen Densham and John Watson. Her initial contempt and distrust of Robin is slight but credible, her eventual falling for his charms not without some degree of reservation. But, despite having bared herself in the likes of De Palma's Scarface, Scorcese's The Colour Of Money and even Cameron's The Abyss, it is terribly unflattering to see half her backside when her skirt billows up as the Sheriff drags her up the stairs to get their shotgun-wedding hastened. Yet both she and Rickman seem to realise that the only way to play this is with the tongue wedged firmly in the cheek. Thus, the skulduggery and roguish antics taking place within the castle become the most entertaining.

    While foundry-voiced Michael (The Crow) Wincott is thoroughly wasted as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, a whole host of Brit TV and stage actors festoon the movie, from the hairy prat-falls of Daniel Peacock and the Artful Dodger, himself, Jack Wild, to comedy's perennial lantern-jawed idiot Derek Deadman (Ringo from Never The Twain and, Robert, one of The Evil One's demonic imbeciles in the awesome Time Bandits). Even TV-regular John Tordoff crops up as the Sheriff's terrified scribe. But of all the familiar faces populating this slapdash epic, my favourite just has to belong to Nick Brimble, who brings Little John to full-blooded vigour. A big, intimidating guy, Brimble has made a career out of playing tough supporting roles - usually SAS-types in the likes of Who Dares Wins and The One That Got Away, but even essaying a very unusual Monster in Roger Corman's time-travelling Frankenstein Unbound - but, here, he is given a much larger role to get his teeth into and, thankfully, he tears at it with gusto. Earthy, mischievous and hardy, he also has a genuine heart of gold and this comes across well, meaning that his Little John is actually one of the better, and most convincingly rounded characters in the movie. He had even appeared in earlier Michael Praed TV version of Robin Hood, so he certainly knew the terrain and his throaty, regional brogue makes the frantic calling to his trapped wife, Fanny (Soo Drouet), as she and her newborn babe loiter, helplessly, above a tree-house inferno much less comical that it would normally have sounded.

    “You travel ten thousand miles to save my life, and leave me to be butchered.”

    “I fulfill my vows when I choose to.”

    “Which does not include prayer time, meal time, or any time I'm outnumbered six to one.”

    “You whine like a mule. You are still alive.”

    Reynolds and cinematographer Doug Milsome have a disconcerting love for warped close-ups that tend to bring in the villainous visages of the Sheriff, Mortianna and Sir Guy with weirdly screen-pushing intensity, their noses and eyes literally bulging out at you. However, this technique is something that is seen far more often on TV and, inevitably, it detracts from the cinematic quality of the film. Elsewhere, the production is overcast, subdued and often mucky. It lacks scope and visual brevity. The geographical gaffs that reviewers seem intent to pick apart - Hadrian's Wall, Salisbury, the New Forest and, er, France all standing in for Sherwood - don't bother me so much, but the film just looks so dank and miserable most of the time that you long for the colossal Redwoods and the Californian hills of Errol Flynn's The Adventures Of Robin Hood to liven the image up. Even the action is threadbare and un-stimulating. The big battle with the hired horde of painted Celts promised so much but, coupled with Milsome's less-than-scenic photography, Reynolds lets the entire set-piece play out with a decidedly ho-hum, Saturday morning paintball-session restraint. The lack of verve in this sequence robs the movie of any gumption it may have aspired to.

    Basically, the film is a juvenile romp and should be viewed entirely as such. This is certainly what the two Kevins would like you to do. But I have to admit that I struggle with it now. Maybe it's a case on not seeing the wood for the trees (ahem), but I just can't get past the many, many anachronisms, the woefully contrived characters and the ineptly staged battles, and I simply cannot stand Costner as Robin. Whereas Errol Flynn was flamboyant, over-the-top and full of zest, Costner is run-down, low-rent and over-the-hill. He can't do the comedy justice and his charisma doesn't appear to have been cast in the film at all. This would be fine if the makers were going for the revisionist, gritty reality of the story, but Reynolds injects too much frivolity and broad lampoonery for this to be classed an anything other than an unintentional spoof.

    Far more disappointing now than it has ever seemed before, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves bested Patrick Bergin's valiant effort but, of the two similarly themed endeavours, it is Bergin's virtual TV-movie adaptation that is the more intelligent and satisfying.

    Even without the extra twelve minutes of footage found here, this is still a slog to sit through and most of its charm has long since evaporated.