erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1990s posts

Wednesday May 12, 2010

Review: “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991)

WARNING: WHEN SPOILERS WERE ROTTEN

“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” is as uneven as Kevin Costner’s accent within it. It begins gritty and ends in high camp. Robin is heroic, then childish, then heroic again. He assumes leadership of a band of outlaws without being a leader, and he’s actually upstaged in almost every department (dignity, warmth, love) by his right-hand man, Azeem (Morgan Freeman), who demonstrates more leadership in professing to follow Robin Hood than Robin Hood does in professing to lead anyone. Robin can’t even win a swordfight against a high-camp version of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) without the old knife-from-the-boot trick. Aside from some pretty cool archery skills, one wonders why this guy became the legend. Shouldn’t we be watching the story of Azeem, Thief of Hearts?

“Prince of Thieves” is the third major film version of Robin Hood and it’s interesting to see how it deviates from the Fairbanks and Flynn versions. Most notably, the Crusades were still celebrated in ’22; and though the ’38 version mixed in a strong sense of post-WWI isolationism (get your own house in order, Jack, before traipsing off to foreign lands), the movie is seen from a wholly Christian perspective, beginning with the opening title card:

In the year of our Lord 1191 when Richard, the Lion-Heart, set forth to drive the infidels form the Holy Land, he gave the Regency of his Kingdom to his trusted friend, Longchamps...

The language in the ’91 opening title card is less dramatic:

800 years ago, Richard “The Lionheart,” King of England, led the third Great Crusade to reclaim the Holy Land from the Turks. Most of the young English noblemen who flocked to his banner never returned home.

Royalty disappears. In ’22, King Richard and Robin are best friends. In ’38, Richard and Robin fight side-by-side in the third act. By ’91, Richard, now with quotes around “The Lionheart,” is relegated to a last-minute wedding blessing, while Prince John, the main villain in the first versions, is nowhere to be seen. He’s been replaced by the Sheriff of Nottingham, who, in ’22, was a walk-on, and in ’38 was comic relief. Here he actually has his eye on the throne. He also has a name, George, which adds nothing, and a devil-worshipping witch-mother, which adds nothing but weirdness.

Right-hand man? From Little John (’22) to Will Scarlett (’38) to Azeem, the Moor.

Will Scarlett? Turns out he’s Robin’s illegitimate half-brother.

Marian? She’s nearly raped on camera, to comic effect.

The thing’s a mess.

It begins in a Turkish prison in Jerusalem, 1194 A.D., where Holy Crusaders are being tortured and maimed. Robin, with five years hair and beard growth, stoically volunteers himself for a maiming instead of his friend Peter. “This is English courage,” he says with an American accent. Then he breaks himself free, along with Peter, and a nearby Moor, Azeem, who promises to show the way out. In the escape, he loses Peter, brother of Marian, to an arrow, but gains Azeem. “You have saved my life, Christian,” Azeem says. “I must stay with you until I have saved yours. That is my vow.” He says all this with Morgan Freeman’s voice, which makes it even cooler.

We later learn that Robin was a bit of a brat as a child—the Sheriff calls him a “whelp” and Marian tells him: “All I remember of you is a spoiled bully who used to burn my hair”—but his years in prison seem to have changed him. Until he returns to England. Then he seems a child again. He guffaws when he finds out why Azeem was locked up. “Because of a woman? That’s it, isn’t it? That’s it!” A scene later, he sobs into Azeem’s chest when they find the skeleton of Robin’s father strung up in a cage at the remains of Locksley Manor. I suppose the filmmakers wanted character development but, for the viewer, it’s such a sharp contrast to our stoic English prisoner. The unevenness has begun.

Robin quickly makes enemies with Guy of Gisbourne (Michael Wincott), cousin to the Sheriff, and he, Azeem and the blind servant, Duncan (Walter Sparrow), flee into Sherwood Forest. There, across a large stream, he tangles with a band of outlaws, notably John Little (Nick Brimble), and bests him by taking him by surprise. Back at the outlaws’ camp, he suggests fighting back against the powers-that-be. Everyone scoffs but he makes trouble in town, cutting the Sheriff’s cheek, and raising the bounty on his head—a source of pride with him. There’s a nice dynamic here that should’ve been underlined: The more Guy and the Sheriff search for Robin, the more homeless people they create, and the more these people wander into Sherwood and become part of Robin’s army. Will Scarlett (Christian Slater), with a huge chip on his shoulder, blames Robin for their misery, and Azeem counsels against forging an army (“Christian, these are simple people, they are not warriors”), but it all comes together anyway. Arrows are made, people are trained, treehouses are created. Friar Tuck, a bit of a drunkard, is brought aboard and initially clashes with the infidel, until, for the 10th time in the movie, Azeem uses his superior scientific knowledge—this time to help a breach baby get born. Then they’re pals.

The Sheriff, meanwhile, flailing inside his castle, fights back with black arts, treachery, and fierce Celts from the North. After Marian is abducted, Duncan, the blind servant, unknowingly leads the Sheriff and the Celts back to Robin’s hideout. Though Robin’s army handle the first assault, they cannot withstand a barrage of flaming arrows and either flee, die or are captured. The Sheriff then threatens the lives of children to force Marian to wed him—to link him to royal blood so he’ll have an avenue to the throne—and, to honor their wedding day, he plans to hang 10 of the merry men in the town square. Robin, of course, and the few survivors (Azeem, Little John, his wife, Will Scarlett), plan otherwise. But no one’s plan works as planned.

Before the Sheriff goes off to camp.

The Flynn version was not only clean of grit and bad language, it was clean in terms of storytelling: 102 minutes and out. The Costner version, in comparison, rambles and shambles, hesitates and backtracks for either 143 minutes, or an interminable 155 minutes in the extended version, and a lot of this is unnecessary. Did we really need Celts, for example? Did we need the black-arts subplot? I’ll give you Will as Robin’s half-brother, even if it leads to one of the worst line readings in the movie (Robin: I have a brother? I have a brother!); but did we also need to find out the witch was really the Sheriff’s mother? Alan Rickman got raves next to Costner when the movie came out, but he’s so over-the-top he’s really in another movie. He’s in a comedy. Alright I’ll say it: he’s awful. The only thing more awful are some of his lines. When in angry mood: “No more table scraps for the orphans... And call off Christmas!” When visiting his torture chamber: “Sorry to keep you hanging about.” As for the end—when he tries to rape Marian at the altar in front of the Bishop? To what end? Look, he’s a smart-enough guy. His world is crashing all around him, and marrying and impregnating Marian would stop none of the crashing. It’s only there to provide this temporary tension for the audience: Can Robin stop the rape in time? Wow, he does.

Costner, whose acting I defended a few years back, has his moments, particularly when he needs to be heroic, dashing, athletic. He can do these things but seems reluctant to do them. At times he also has gravitas. Then he opens his mouth, trying for that British accent, and out comes mostly flat, nasal Californian. Planning for the final assault, he suddenly adopts what sounds like a Bronx accent. As a joke? Were there no other takes? Who edited this thing? His 1991 mullet doesn’t hold up, either. Can Robin Hood ever have a decent haircut?

He's good in the action scenes...and when not opening his mouth.

Tuck’s British accent—the actor is from Massachusetts—is pretty lousy, too. Mastrantonio is fine, beautiful, and Freeman as always is a joy. That look of pure delight on his face when the little girl at camp asks him if God painted his face. His speech before the townspeople after the hangings go awry: “ I am not one of you but I fight for you! I fight with Robin Hood!” It’s a great moment but it underlines Robin’s own lack of leadership. Shouldn’t Robin have given such a speech? At least once?

Michael Wincott makes an effective, scary Gisbourne. He’s the villain the movie should’ve had. But overall the thing is a mess. Director Kevin Reynolds gives us a long sloppy affair that’s full of movie clichés. Marian, scared, hears noises in her home. Oh, whew, it’s just a cat. No it isn’t! Battles rage, but, oh whew, the Sheriff and his witch-mother are dead. No, she’s isn’t!

So what did all of this mean? The second-highest domestic gross of 1991: $165 million. But gross doesn’t necessarily mean popularity. I’d argue “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” was one of those movies, like “Spider-Man 3” or “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” that everyone went to see, and then everyone agreed that everyone shouldn’t have gone to see it. It wasn’t necessarily robbing from the rich, but it was definitely robbing.

Posted at 07:02 AM on May 12, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 1990s, Robin Hood
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Monday May 03, 2010

Review: Robin Hood (1991-BBC)

WARNING: PIERCING SPOILERS

This one surprised me. It’s tough to make a legend like Robin Hood feel new but this one comes close for this reason: it doesn’t pretend to be legendary as it’s happening. Let’s face it, none of us really knows what we’re doing. We make up this stuff as we go, and only after the fact does a pattern (possibly) emerge. At which point we say, “Oh, I get it. This is the story.”

What’s the story, or the legend, of Robin Hood? He’s a man, a noble, who stands up to a corrupt prince and his minions during a time when the legitimate king, Richard the Lionheart, is away at the Crusades or captured in Austria. He’s the best archer in the land, and not bad with a sword, either. He’s a swashbuckler, and he and his men live in Sherwood Forest and rob from the rich and give to the poor. And they have a grand time doing it. Hell, they’re merry doing it. Oh, and there’s a girl, too, since there’s always a girl. And in the end Robin gets the girl, the bad guys get their comeuppance, and Richard is reinstalled as the one and true King of England. Sound trumpets.

Who is Robin Hood here? He’s Sir Robert Hode, Earl of Huntingdon (a perfect Patrick Bergin), a Saxon noble in a land dominated by Norman conquerors. Which means he’s privileged and not, master and not. Sure, he doesn’t like injustice, but he doesn’t like a lot of things. He does like women and drinking, however. He relishes a fight, too. Whenever someone lands a blow he comes up smiling, eyes flashing. He also has a sense of privilege (he’s a noble, after all), and a hair-trigger temper (ditto), and he tends to get involved against his better judgment. Then he shakes his head and thinks, “Crap, how did I wind up here?” Even though here is the legendary place we know he should be. His better instincts, in other words, are telling him not to become what he famously becomes.

The movie begins with Norman knights, led by the Norman Sir Miles Folcanet (Jurgen Prochnow of “Das Boot” fame), hunting a man who’s been poaching on royal lands. First the man tries to take his buck with him; then he abandons it, runs, but keeps falling; then, just as the hounds are upon him, he falls at the feet of...wait for the pan up...Robin Hood! Except he’s not Robin Hood yet, he’s Robert Hode, and even as the poacher, Much, recognizes him and says, “Help me, Sir Robert,” he simply stands there. He stands there as Much is caught, admonished, and—since this is his second offense—threatened with having his eyes put out. It’s up to Robert’s friend, Will (Owen Teale), to tell him what the rest of us are thinking:

Do something.”

Robert’s response? He rolls his eyes. Love that.

But once he confronts Folcanet he doesn’t do it in half-measures. He’s an Earl. He’s used to getting his way. And he gets pissed off when others, particularly Normans, stand in his way.

Hode: Leave him.
Falconet: Who do you think you are? This man is a poacher.
Hode: On my land. I have no objection to this man hunting on my land. He’s a useful member of our community. Who exactly are you?
Falconet: I am Sir Miles Falconet. And I am the guest of the Baron Daguerre to whom this land belongs. And certainly not to some Scottish Saxon.

But Hode is friends, too, with the Baron (Jeroen Krabbe), and in the next scene we watch them playing a board game while talking about the trial Hode will undergo the next day for confronting Falconet. Daguerre jokes, as he’s losing the board game, that he’ll have to give Sir Robert a flogging. Hode doesn’t see the humor. “You can’t do that,” he says. “I’m an Earl.” For good measure he adds, “Need I remind you that while your grandfather’s father was no more than a pirate, my great grandfather was chancellor to our King!” This pisses off Daguerre. Momentarily. He’s normally a diplomatic man, and at the trial the next day he weighs the offense and Hode’s title and recommends a public lashing: one lash. This pleases neither man but it’s Hode, with his hair-trigger temper, who’s more insistently displeased, and the number of threatened lashes keeps rising until Hode reveals the Baron’s corrupt, unnoble heritage and rails against the raping and pillaging of the Normans in general. At which point the Baron stands and decrees that Hode forfeits his title and land, and all things in his possession, and orders him shackled. Which is when Robin and Will take up arms and fight their way out to a nearby forest. I believe it’s called Sherwood.

This is not a California forest, by the way. It’s dark and cold, and as soon as Hode starts a fire with a flint it begins to rain. (“Bloody Normans,” he says.) The next day he has his legendary encounter with John Little (David Morrissey) on a log bridge over a roaring river, not a tepid stream. Hode: How are you at walking backwards?” Little: “I’ve never had to try yet, shortass.” Indeed. Hode gets knocked in and nearly drowns in the rapids. Little likes his spunk, though, and brings him and Will to a bandit/outlaw hideout, which is a dank, filthy cave, not an idyllic clearing. Much, the Miller, is there as well and Hode introduces himself, to Much’s amusement, as “Robin Hood,” since his status as an earl, even a deposed earl, would be problematic in the setting. The next morning Robin and Will are about to get kicked out again. Spunk only gets you so far. It’s one meal and off you go, Little tells them, adding, “Unless you can do something.”

Hode pauses, generally confused, and says, “I can shoot. A bit.”

This is not “The greatest archer in all the land.” This is a guy who knows he’s not bad with the bow-and-arrow but assumes others could be better. Of course when he goes up against the outlaws’ best archer, Harry (Alex Norton), the two of them aiming for a stick at 100 paces, Harry shoots his arrow right next to the stick but Hode, now Robin, to the astonishment of everyone—including, one assumes, himself—splits the freakin’ stick. There’s no feeling of inevitability here. On the contrary, you feel like Robin is telling himself: “You lucky bastard.” Equally surprising? This is the last time in the film he takes up bow and arrow.

Bergin's Robin Hood is one of the most underrated.

No, Robin reveals his true gift to the outlaws with his insider knowledge of the comings-and-goings of the rich. Told they’re staking out such-and-such a road to plunder, Robin suggests another, where he knows gold is being transported by Sir Miles Falconet. And that’s what they do. Robin leads the men on a chase to a valley where Falconet thinks he has Hode; but Robin and his men have him. In the skirmish after the trial, Will cut Falconet’s neck and Hode asks about it. “How’s your wound? Hm. It’s healing.” Then anger suddenly, astonishingly pours out of him. “But some wounds never heal. Tell that to Daguerre: some-wounds-never-heal” and he presses his knife back into Falconet’s neck and reopens the wound.

Falconet and his men are stripped and ride past Maid Marian (Uma Thurman), who had been with the initial caravan, and she and Hode, who have had several back-and-forths in the film thus far, have another. As good as the film has been to this point, the stuff with Marian is, unfortunately, just as bad. It’s like they’re trying to do “Big Sleep”-ish double entendres but it’s all cringe-worthy:

Marian: So. What are you going to do with me—tie me up?
Robin: Could be a lashing.
Marian: How many strokes?
Robin: As many as are necessary... Have you been lashed before?
Marian: I’ve never had someone make me beg them me to stop.
Robin: (smiles): Then you’ve never had a proper lashing.

Seriously? Thurman is bad in this, too. Her casting, which seems perfect, is actually one of the worst things about the movie.

Absolutely beautiful. But all wrong for the role.

So the two sides keep raising the stakes. Robin steals money? Then the Baron raises taxes to make up the difference. “That’ll make him really popular,” he says. The Baron raises taxes? Robin takes the taxes. Robin and his men save two children from hanging? The Baron burns down a village. They torture a man to death to find out where Robin is. They take everything—including a 12-year-old girl. Then they further raise the reward on Robin Hood. So what does Robin do? He gives the money back to the poor to keep them on his side. “It’s their money anyway,” he says. “Their taxes.” The response from Harry and some of the other outlaws is expected. “Give it away?” Harry says. “Are you crazy?” Thus are legends borne out of happenstance. We make this shit up as we go.

The Baron, in this version, is basically the Sheriff of Nottingham—as Folcanet is Gisbourne—but he’s not, despite the aforementioned tortures, outrightly evil. The Sheriff is normally portrayed as glowering and scheming in cahoots with Prince John, but here he has to answer to Prince John (Edward Fox). Prince John wants the money, the taxes, but the Baron doesn’t have them. John is both amused and not. “They sing ballads,” John says of the people and Robin Hood. “They see a new Saxon leader emerging.” So John leaves 40 soldiers with this incompetent Baron who let things get out of hand. Then he gets histrionic. “You will turn over every blade of grass in Barnsadle, Sherwood and Nottingham until this man and his cutthroats are brought to the gallows and disemboweled while they still breathe. I will not have my throne threatened! I will not have Saxon mark Norman! And I will have my money!”

Not much comes of this, and there’s too much subplot with Marian. She disguises herself as a boy to get close to Robin but Robin figures it out (it only takes a profile), then Harry finds out, then Harry, bastard, betrays everyone by returning Marian to the Baron and Falconet. He expects a reward but gets tortured for information. We last see him hanging eyeless in a cage outside the castle. Remember in the ’38 version when arrows pierced the chests of knights and no blood emerged? Those are stories for children.

Unfortunately it all comes down to Marian’s wedding of convenience with Folcanet, which leads Robin and his men to storm the castle during All Fool’s Day. Robin and Folcanet battle with broadswords while Will gets his big scene, convincing the Baron to lay down his arms, to join Norman and Saxon. The movie ends with the marriage of Norman (Marian) and Saxon (Robin), at which point the sun, which we haven’t seen during the film, and which will symbolize the modern British empire, finally emerges. Modern England can finally be.

The sun, which someday will never set on the British Empire, finally shows up and warms Friar Tuck.

What a shame. The last 15 minutes of this film do a real disservice to the first 90. Prochnow overacts horribly in the last half, too.

But the first 90 are fascinating. What a great story! An occupied noble with a hair-trigger temper and a love of fighting bands with commoners and uses his insider knowledge to bring down the occupiers. It’s not the stuff of legend, but it ain’t bad.

Posted at 06:31 AM on May 03, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 1990s, Robin Hood
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