Today marks the 25th anniversary of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a film ten-year old me couldn’t wait to see as soon as possible. Much hype surrounded Kevin Costner’s adaptation of the swashbuckling hero to the common-folk, because he was (believe it or not) probably the biggest star in Hollywood at the time. Fresh off his Oscar success with Dances With Wolves, Costner would play the titular hero in a big, sweeping, epic take on the classic character Errol Flynn made famous some 50 years earlier.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was sold as a boisterous family adventure full of adventure and “fun.” There was Costner, Morgan Freeman, and the deliciously villainous Alan Rickman. Toy companies released action figures ahead of time, because I remember having one of each. And then, the film started, and almost immediately a prisoner’s hands are chopped off…
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is one of the weirdest, most mishandled summer “family” films of all time. Mostly because it’s anything but family friendly. For me, my mother never really bothered censoring me because she knew I knew the difference between fantasy and reality. But she had to be a little confused when the prisoner’s hands were chopped off, when an evil witch spit into a plate full of blood and bones (and later caught Morgan Freeman’s helicoptering, gigantic blade in the chest sending her hurtling back through the air), and when Maid Marian was being sexually assaulted near the film’s climax. Tonally, Prince of Thieves wanted the best of both worlds, and didn’t really get either right.
Kevin Costner is woefully wrong as Robin of Locksley. Not because he’s a bad actor – I particularly enjoy his dry delivery in most settings – but because his accent is so insanely uneven, disappearing and reappearing from scene to scene. Rumor had it that director Kevin Reynolds and Costner had arguments back and forth about Costner’s English accent and whether or not he should bother using it. Reynolds probably realized, when Costner employed the Brit cadence, that he sounded ridiculous. As a form of protest, Costner would use the accent when he and Reynolds were arguing, which was apparently often, and he would just use his own voice when they weren’t in a squabble. Sounds incredibly mature.
Aside from his shifting accent, Costner’s capable when it comes to the action, though he and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Maid Marian have little to no chemistry. Their scenes are wooden and burning with all the desire of a visit to the DMV. Then there was Christian Slater’s “pre-emo” Will Scarlett, a whiny bitch of the highest order. In fact, the Merry Men never seemed merry or particularly inspired by Robin’s leadership, because Costner’s Robin was a limp leader of men.
On top of performances coming from every which direction, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is an ugly movie. It’s drab and murky, and everything looks sickly and wet. This is a story adapted time and time again, and is often a high-flying adventure film full of colorful characters. Reynolds and Co. were clearly going for a more realistic take on the legend of Robin Hood, but sometimes too much reality is a bad thing. This era in the UK certainly was a drab and unforgiving environment, but in a summer blockbuster aimed at children and families, perhaps a little more vibrance in the settings and a little less darkness and macabre art direction would have been a better move.
Not all is lost with Prince of Thieves, however, because of Alan Rickman. Rickman turned down the Sheriff of Nottingham role a few times before he was finally granted carte blanche to interpret the character in any way he wanted. And boy, did he have fun with it. Here is one of the pinnacles of gleeful scenery-chewing performances, as Rickman seems almost unable to contain himself from moment to moment. His manic performances goes over the top, then find another top above that to go over. It’s wonderful to just watch Rickman seemingly try and steal the movie from everyone around him, and for the most part he succeeds in doing just that. He damn near saves the movie singlehandedly.
There are a few things that work in this incredibly weird Robin Hood tale, but more things that fail in profound ways. Prince of Thieves was a pre-packaged summer flick that delivered on none of its intended promise, and screamed of disagreements and troubled production, something that would sadly become commonplace with Costner in the mid-90s as his star began fading under the weight of increasingly costly failures. But hey, we’ll always have Alan Rickman.