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Robin Hood Prince of Thieves

D: Kevin Reynolds / 143m

Cast: Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Christian Slater, Geraldine McEwan, Micheal McShane, Michael Wincott, Nick Brimble, Soo Drouet, Walter Sparrow, Harold Innocent, Daniel Newman, Daniel Peacock, Jack Wild, Imogen Bain, Brian Blessed, Sean Connery

Jerusalem, 1194: Having taken part in the Crusades in support of King Richard the Lionheart, Robin of Locksley (Costner) is a prisoner facing a bleak future.  Seizing a chance to escape he finds himself doing so with Moor Azeem (Freeman), who tells Robin he must stay with him until he can repay the debt of Robin saving his life.  Back in England, Robin’s father (Blessed) is killed by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Rickman), his castle razed to the ground, and his lands forfeited.  Four months pass before Robin and Azeem arrive back in England.  When Robin learns of his father’s fate, he seeks out his former childhood friend, Marian (Mastrantonio).  The Sheriff’s men – led by his cousin Guy of Gisborne (Wincott) – chase Robin and Azeem into Sherwood Forest, where they find refuge with a band of outlaws.

Robin soon becomes the outlaws’ leader, and they start to rob convoys and shipments that travel through the forest, including a large cache of money that they learn is intended to pay off a group of barons who will support Nottingham’s challenge for the throne in King Richard’s absence.  With their increasing resistance interfering with the Sheriff’s plans, he hires a band of Celts to find and lead an assault on the outlaws’ hideaway.  With several of the outlaws taken prisoner, and with their executions planned to take place on the same day that the Sheriff intends to marry Marian against her wishes, Robin, Azeem and a few remaining outlaws – including Little John (Brimble), Will Scarlett (Slater), and Friar Tuck (McShane) – must save their comrades, stop the marriage, and thwart the Sheriff’s plans to overthrow the monarchy.

Robin Hood Prince of Thieves - scene

Back in 1991, Kevin Costner was fresh off the Oscar-winning success garnered by Dances With Wolves (1990), and audiences had the prospect of Oliver Stone’s JFK to come later in the year.  But in between there was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a movie that promises so much but in practice offers a rather lumpen retelling of the Robin Hood myth, and which makes the mistake of having a lead character who is so bland and unexciting to watch that the movie stumbles along for far too long before it ratchets up the action for its extended, exhilarating climax.

Costner’s Robin is a bit of a dullard, so much so that the romance with Marian makes you question her eyesight and experience of other men.  With such an unnecessary and distracting approach, it falls to the supporting characters to provide any vitality or energy, though we’re talking minor supporting characters in the main, such as Bull (Peacock) and Much (Wild), or McEwan’s cackling turn as the witch Mortianna.  Thank the screenwriters then – Pen Densham and John Watson – that they gave us a Sheriff of Nottingham straight out of the am-dram leagues, and that Alan Rickman (only three years on from his breakout performance as Hans Gruber in Die Hard) embraced the pantomime aspects of the character and gave the movie a much-needed boost.  When he’s on screen there are just waves of pleasure generated by his exasperated, frustrated Sheriff, and lines of dialogue that continue to impress even after all this time: “That’s it then.  Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas.”  But good as he is, Rickman’s performance only serves to highlight how little effort has gone into making Robin anywhere near as interesting.

It’s not really noticeable either, just how much time elapses over the course of the movie.  It takes Robin and Azeem four months to get home, and once they meet up with the outlaws in the forest, a further five months elapse before the Sheriff is given the idea of hiring the Celts.  This seriously undermines any dramatic tension the movie has – until the planned executions are announced – and this leaves the middle section feeling drawn out and at the mercy of the romance between Robin and Marian, which, despite being well acted by Costner and Mastrantonio, still drains the movie of any impetus it’s managed to build up by then.

The unevenness of the script, and problems with the pacing aside, there’s still much to recommend, from the stirring action set pieces, to the often pointed humour – “Where I come from, we talk to our women. We do not drug them with plants.” – as well as the aforementioned supporting turns, to the look of the movie, its rural settings and heavy greens and browns providing a rich palette for the audience to look at.  Reynolds directs with conviction, and with DoP Douglas Milsome’s help, keeps the camera moving in and around the action, often getting in close at unexpected, but effective, moments.

As an updated version of the classic tale, there are some unfortunate anachronisms throughout (mostly of the verbal variety – would Will Scarlett really have said what he does when Robin and Azeem catapult over a castle wall?), and some of the more modern, ironic sensibilities in the script are at odds with the medieval milieu, but they come across as part of the uneven approach to the material; ultimately these elements  fail to gel but don’t impede a basic enjoyment of the movie, and don’t detract when the movie picks up the pace (and becomes more exciting).

Rating: 7/10 – slow-moving in parts (and geographically amusing – Dover to Nottingham via Hadrian’s Wall, anyone?), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves takes a high concept, big budget approach to a small-scale adventure drama and loses its focus accordingly; with Costner and most of the cast hindered by poor characterisations, it’s left to a bravura finale to rescue the film from being completely bland.