June 2024

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

DIRECTOR: Kevin Reynolds

CAST: Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Alan Rickman, Christian Slater, Michael Wincott


Where is the high-spirited derring-do? The romance? The breezy sense of adventure one might reasonably expect from a big Hollywood rendition of the oft-told legend of Robin Hood? These are all questions one might be asking when viewing Kevin Reynolds’ clumsily-handled take on the classic tale, marred by a whiplashy tone, a low energy level, and a miscast Kevin Costner, largely dependent upon an absurdly (and deliciously) campy performance by Alan Rickman to liven things up. Sadly, it’s not enough.

The flaws are in the execution, or as one might also say, the devil is in the details; the script by Pete Densham and John Watson includes all the expected characters and plot elements (whether it includes them well is another matter). We open in 1100s Jerusalem, during King Richard the Lionhearted’s campaign to “rescue” the Holy City from the Muslim Turks. English lord Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner, not remotely even trying to be English) escapes from a hellish Turkish prison and makes an unlikely ally in a Muslim Moorish warrior, Azeem (Morgan Freeman). But Robin comes home to find his world turned upside down. His father (Brian Blessed) has been murdered and his manor sacked, and the countryside is under the jackboot of the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman, approaching the part like a Monty Python villain), who is taxing the people to the bone and hoarding loot to buy an alliance of nobles against the absentee King. To take on the Sheriff, avenge his father, and defend his people, Robin and Azeem must form some unlikely allies, including a band of woodsman led by the inappropriately-named Little John (Nick Brimble), hard-drinking Friar Tuck (Michael McShane), and the surly Will Scarlett (Christian Slater), who is obviously bursting to spill some secret but must wait until the appointed time for his dramatic reveal. And of course, there’s also Maid Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), Robin’s childhood friend and present-day love interest, whose royal blood makes her a desirable would-be bride for the Sheriff as well.

There’s no reason why wringing a breezy swashbuckling adventure out of what should be as simple and straightforward as Robin Hood should be an insurmountable challenge, but Reynolds and and company have not risen to the task. Instead, Prince of Thieves is a murky, muddled hodgepodge of gloomy cinematography, clumsily-choreographed action (suffice it to say that the climactic swordfight does not convince anyone of either Kevin Costner or Alan Rickman’s skills as swordsmen) flatly-directed by Reynolds, and a whiplashy tone that wavers uncertainly between wannabe swashbuckler with a low energy level, and campy, jokey bits (most prominently but not limited to Alan Rickman’s scenes) that feel like they’re out of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, all the while set to Michael Kamen’s grandiose, rousing score that desperately tries to convince us something more grand and exciting is taking place than anything that actually happens onscreen. Indeed, the two things it’s most remembered for nowadays are probably Bryan Adams’ popular theme song “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” and Alan Rickman’s ridiculously campy performance, which is one of the few things that’s at least entertaining, even if it feels like it’s out of some entirely other movie than the rest of what we’re watching.

The casting/acting is spotty, none more so than Kevin Costner himself, who seems about as awkwardly and glaringly out-of-place as….well, as one might expect from Kevin Costner as a medieval English lord. Costner received much lambasting for his complete lack of any attempt at an English accent (reportedly he did initially attempt to adopt one for the role, then abandoned it), but the real biggest problem which an accent would not have fixed is his complete lack of any charisma or dynamism. Costner is a dull and dreary presence, and as a supposedly dashing hero, he certainly leaves a lot to be desired (in a bit of amusingly ironic casting trivia, Cary Elwes turned down the role, only to later play a spoofy version of Robin Hood in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men In Tights). For her part, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Maid Marian gets an introduction that seemingly sets her up as an independent action heroine, and then spends most of the rest of the movie as a damsel in distress wringing her hands and trying to fend off the Sheriff’s advances. There’s not a lot of chemistry between Costner and Mastrantonio, and the Robin/Marian “love story” feels half-baked, like characters who only have a romance because it’s an obligatory part of the Robin Hood story. Christian Slater is a little more energetic and sells his “dramatic reveal”, but it’s not really enough to salvage anything. Only two cast members somewhat distinguish themselves, though not for the same reasons. I think someone of Morgan Freeman’s seemingly effortless wisdom, authority, and screen presence would be hard-pressed to ever seem out-of-place in any movie, and while this is hardly among Freeman’s better roles, he manages to walk through with his dignity mostly intact even through some dopey dialogue, playing off of a glaringly miscast Costner, and an iffy Arabic-ish accent. The other “standout”, and if we’re being honest the part of the movie remembered the most affectionately, is Alan Rickman going completely over-the-top with a fatuous, wildly campy version of the Sheriff of Nottingham (as one of many examples, he issues a list of decrees, including “no more merciful beheadings”, and finishes up with “and call off Christmas!”, before flouncing out the door). He sneers, he sweats, he flails wildly around, he screams ridiculous lines (“I’ll cut your heart out with a spoon!”), and at one point punches out a guard who was too slow closing the gate to prevent Robin’s escape, then hauls the man to his feet just so he can punch him again. Reportedly Rickman turned down the role twice before being given free rein to basically do whatever he wanted, and it shows; his “performance” is a hoot as long you’re not trying to take it remotely seriously (SPOILER WARNING wait until his hilariously overplayed death scene, where he staggers all around the room and takes seemingly ten minutes to die, like a melodramatic stage actor), and we find ourselves looking forward to his scenes because at least we know something entertaining will be going on, even if it has nothing to do with anything else in the movie. There’s some recognizable faces in smaller roles: Michael Wincott doing a generic greasy henchman thing as the Sheriff’s cousin Guy of Gisbourne, and boomy-voiced Shakespearean thespian Brian Blessed in a cameo as Robin’s father Lord Locksley. Others, like Nick Thimble and Michael McShane’s fatuous Little John and Friar Tuck, don’t make much of an impression, and SPOILER WARNING there’s a last-minute cameo by Sean Connery as King Richard.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a prime example of how a seemingly simple and straightforward adventure story can be dull and dreary in the wrong hands. The ingredients are there (well, apart from an appropriate lead actor), but they don’t come together, or they’re clumsily-handled. Robin Hood might be “prince of thieves”, but this movie is no Hollywood royalty.

* * 1/2