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Review: "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" fails to hit the bull's eye

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Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

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"Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" (1991)

Directed by Kevin Reynolds

Written by Pen Densham and John Watson

Starring : Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman, Christian Slater, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Azeem: English! English! Behold, Azeem Edin Bashir Al Bakir. I am not one of you, but I fight! I fight with Robin Hood. I fight against a tyrant who holds you under his boot! If you would be free men, then you must fight! Join us now, join Robin Hood!

One of the least impressive – yet commercially successful – films set in medieval England’s Sherwood Forest is director Kevin Reynolds’ "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," written by Pen Densham and John Watson as a vehicle for the then in-demand Kevin Costner.

Set during the Third Crusade, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" tells the story of a young English nobleman (Costner) who, along with his friend Peter Dubois (Liam Halligan), has been captured and imprisoned by the Saracens in Jerusalem. While in captivity, the two English nobles befriend Azeem (Morgan Freeman), a Moor who has run afoul of his fellow Muslims. Eventually, the three make an attempt to escape from their prison. Robin and Azeem make it, but Peter is killed.

After this promising prologue, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" settles down in the more familiar territory of Not-So-Merry-Old England, now ruled by an unseen (and unmentioned) Prince John while King Richard the Lion Heart is off on his doomed Crusade in the Holy Land.

As in most of the stories about Robin Hood, Robin comes into conflict with the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman and Sir Guy of Gisborne (Michael Wincott), who are joined here by a new character, the evil and ambitious witch Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan).

Here, Robin is forced to take up bow and arrow against this alliance of baddies when his he finds his father’s corpse hanging at the entrance of his destroyed manor – a dark deed prompted by Locksley the Elder’s refusal to accept the Sheriff’s cult-like religion.

After making contact with Peter’s sister, Lady Marian Dubois (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and taking her under his protection, Robin Hood flees into the green wilderness of Sherwood Forest and begins to assemble his band of resistance fighters. The Merry Men include Little John (Nick Brimble), Will Scarlett (Christian Slater), Azeem, and the warrior-priest Friar Tuck (Michael McShane).

Striking at the Sheriff’s men from their hidden base in the forest, this band of brothers wages what amounts to be a guerrilla campaign against the evil pretenders to the English throne. They steal gold from the corrupt allies of the Sheriff and give it to the oppressed poor in the country and pave the way for the return of King Richard.

My Take: Though "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" earned over $300 million worldwide in 1991 and featured a decent Anglo-American cast, the tale by the two Kevins is, dark, uninspiring and not much of a fun movie.

Even taking into account the fact that Robin Hood is a legendary character whose story has undergone many changes over the centuries, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" bends historical fact and English lore into a veritable pretzel.

Not only have screenwriters Pen Densham and John Watson obliterated the legend’s core conflict between the Saxons and Normans by making their villains a cult of evil pagans, but they have also stuffed the movie with weird and unbelievable anachronisms.

For instance, although the Arabs would not learn of the existence of gunpowder till the 1290s, Azeem (who lives in 1194) is somehow very familiar with it. Azeem also uses a telescope in the movie, even though the first of these optical devices would not be invented until the 1600s.

Of course, such mistakes would be easily overlooked if "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" offered viewers a mix of action, good acting, and the kind of fun and adventure found in the earlier movies made about the title character. However, except for the presence of Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman and – for a brief cameo, anyway – Sean Connery, Reynolds and producer/actor Costner give us a movie saddled with so-so acting and a very unexciting story which is too gory and dark for its own good.

Sheriff of Nottingham: Wait a minute. Robin Hood steals money from my pocket, forcing me to hurt the public, and they love him for it?

[Scribe nods]

Sheriff of Nottingham: That's it then. Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas.

While Rickman ("Die Hard") pulls no punches in a fun-to-watch and over the top performance as the main villain, Costner seems to be out of his league (and out of his time) as the nobleman who becomes an outlaw/freedom fighter. His leading man’s good looks serve him well visually, but his too-serious line readings and California accent often pull the viewer out of the story.

Worse still, Costner plays his character as if Robin of Locksley were essentially a battle-damaged Vietnam War veteran who has somehow traveled back in time eight centuries to medieval England. This dourness is understandable in the movie’s first act – the guy has suffered gravely during the Crusade and lost his father and his castle to the evil Sheriff – but in the remaining two thirds of "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" Costner seems to be trying to channel Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet instead of the more spirited Errol Flynn incarnation of Robin Hood.

Considering that the Robin Hood legend has traditionally been aimed at audiences which include kids, the film’s “anti-swashbuckling” sensibility and its graphic violence is unnerving. The movie’s beginning includes the amputation of someone’s hand, and the rest of "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" is a cornucopia of stabbings, whippings, piercings by arrows, beheadings and hangings, topped off only by the main villain’s attempt to rape Lady Marian.

Now, this is not to say that the 12th Century England was idyllic or that none of these bad things are figments of the filmmakers’ imagination, but all this violence and dark thematic material are unnecessary and make "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" a dismal movie watching experience.

Blu-ray Specs and Details:

Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Widescreen, Anamorphic, Color, Black & White

Language: German (Dolby Digital 5.1), Italian (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 5.1), French (Dolby Digital 5.1), Spanish (Dolby Digital 5.1)

Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch

Dubbed: French, German, Italian, Spanish

Region: Region A/1

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Rated: Unrated

Studio: Warner Home Video

Blu-ray Release Date: May 26, 2009

Run Time: 155 minutes

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