Thursday, December 10, 2020

Kevinography, part 5: Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves (1991)

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This is part 5 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them. 
Synopsis: During the crusades, spoiled aristocrat Robin of Locksley gets captured and tortured by Saracens. During a break-out, he teams up with moor Azeem (Morgan Freeman) with whom he returns home to England, only to find out that the evil Sheriff of Notthingham (an absolutely scene-stealing Alan Rickman) burned down his home and killed his family. Trying to make good on his promise to protect the Lady Marian, he is driven into Sherwood Forest by the sherrif's goons. In the forest, he teams up with a band of outlaws and forges them into a fighting force that carries the fight back to the sheriff....

Analysis: Robin Hood Prince of Thieves is the defining Robin Hood version of my youth, despite having seen the old Erroll Flynn one first. It's not like a better one has come around since; Russel Crowe's attempt in 2010 was a spectacular misfire, and the less talked about the 2018 reboot, the better.
For me, Prince of Thieves marks a watershed in movies. Here in Germany, it was the first time that a movie with any significant level of violence was seen as suitable for children. Before, if anyone was killed in some even mildly violent way, the movie was set for ages 16 and up, and Robin Hood, despite featuring some really gruesome violence, was marked ages 12 and up. It used to run at least once per year on TV when I was roughly that age, and I watched the recording A LOT. I can even lip-sync parts of the dialogue to this day. 

So, I can't say that I come to this experience without a heavy tint of nostalgia. Rewatching it for this project after many years of Costner-y abstinence made me realize that it also marks another watershed, too. Before I delve deeper into that, I want to make clear that I don't want to give this movie more importance than it deserves; I see it as representative of a time - the 1990s - less than having such impact as to usher in these changes by itself. 

But Prince of Thieves is incorporating what we today would call "woke" elements. There's a lot of heavy-handed dialogue about the stupidity of religious wars; how Muslims are people with rights, too; that women can manage just fine on their own, thank you; and a lot of other stuff like that.
All these elements are by now more or less required; Disney has made into the foundation of their success to find just the right level of un-offensiveness to prosper without alienating anyone. I don't know how Prince of Thieves was received back in the day, but I'd imagine that there was some mumbling about a black person being the second-most important character in the thing (thankfully, they didn't make him into Little John but gave him the invented persona of Azeem). 

However, Prince of Thieves was still a very 1990s blockbuster, so this finds clear limits. Costner is definitely the star of the movie, and everything revolves around his Robin Hood, who has a character arc so laughably incoherent that you just have to go with the flow not to groan aloud. Everyone else is playing second fiddle, and the idea that a black character or, god forbid, a woman could carry a blockbuster as the main character would have to wait another 25 years. 

Still, I don't want to begrudge Prince of Thieves the achievements it has in that regard. No one loves the early trailblazers who fall short of every measure once the revolution progressed, so I'm gonna give it here. Huzzah, Prince of Thieves. 

With that, let's go over to the actual plot. There's A LOT going on in this movie. The Sheriff not only leads a political conspiracy of the barons to depose Richard (a plot element so irrelevant I only realized it was there on this very watch), he's leading a Satanist cult whose objectives are...let's say murky. It may or may not coincide with the conspiracy of the barons who may or may not be committed Satanists. 

There's also a witch for which the props department really tried everything that might scare little kids for weeks. She is the mentor figure of the Sheriff and has her own agenda, but this agenda in the end boils down to "I'll show everyone". On the other hand, no one cares for secondary villains, so that's just as well. 

Robin himself has unresolved issues about his dad, which come up three times in the movie and feel like they belong to an entirely different character. They're also used to hamfist the character of Will Scarlett in the movie (a spectacularly miscast Christian Slater), who is Robin's secret half-brother.
At the same time, the archbishop is in cahoots with the Sheriff, Richard is fighting in France for some reason and needs to be alarmed, several of the merry men have their own side-plots, there's a whole love-story between Marian and Robin squeezed between the scenes and the Celts are recruited by the Sheriff to defeat the same. I'm sure I've forgotten something. Again, you're just going with the flow, else, your head starts spinning. 

What I really like are the costumes and sets. Yes, the clothing has about as much to do with the middle ages like your LARP shop around the corner, but it establishes a firm sense of style that is massively helped along by the sheer ugliness of many people and scenes. Bad teeth, spit, sweat and dirt are everywhere, until Robin stalks around in a clean white shirt with his mullet and clearly American accent. You have to go with the flow, did I say that already? 

The greatest thing for me about this movie, however, apart from the battle for the camp, remains Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham. Unlike most other actors, who are forced to change between serious and epic to funny and silly, Rickman decided early on that he would just overact. Every. Single. Scene. The only real comparison is Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons, and the less talked about that travesty of a movie, the better. 

Rickman plays an evil sheriff so laughably evil that you just have to love him. He's murdering his own cousin because he failed to protect a carriage, he rapes women by the dozen, he is a Satanist, he tyrannizes his underlings, randomly tries to jump-scare them and of course, he's calling off Christmas. This is heavily aided by director Kevin Reynold's odd love for close-ups in Dutch Angles that give the Sheriff's scenes even more of a weird tone. 

The verdict: I still love that movie, although I highly want to dissuade you from watching it if you don't have any attachment to it. It's incredibly silly, and a lot of its elements don't really live up to modern standards.

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