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Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves (DVD)

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Few Hollywood actors are more maligned than the venerable Kevin Costner. Despite his status as an Oscar winner and lead roles in two of the best sports films of all time, he seems to be remembered much more for his misses than his hits. In 1991, on the heels of the astounding success of Dances with Wolves and before the twin big-budget disasters of Waterworld and The Postman, Costner and director Kevin Reynolds reimagined the Robin Hood myth for a new generation.

The Film

Though comparisons to the many previous screen versions, particularly 1976’s Robin and Marian, are inevitable, screenwriters Pen Densham and John Watson have created an entirely unique, if somewhat limited, reinterpretation of the classic tale. Most notably, a fervent political correctness abounds.

The Crusades as the reason for King Richard’s absence from England and their wrongness is brought to the forefront, even spelled out specifically several times to ensure the viewer understands that the English invasion into the Middle East was wrong. Morgan Freeman’s character, Azeem, exists largely to show the superiority of Eastern technology and philosophy over Western. His frequent jabs at the backwardness of the English make the underlying and largely unseen Holy War easier for Christian audiences to stomach.

Feminism gets a surprising boost as well with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s feisty and fully capable Maid Marian. Though Robin Hood still comes to her rescue in the film’s final battle sequence, she more than holds her own with a sword earlier on, and she is every bit as headstrong and decisive as the title character himself.

This “updating” of the story detracts little from the tale, though a willing suspension of disbelief is required. Despite the pervasive anachronism, this is likely the most realistic version of the Robin Hood story ever filmed. The specificity of setting in time and place and the grittiness of the violence makes this more modern take stand apart from prior, far more campy interpretations.

Costner plays Robin of Locksley as he plays nearly every role: a speechifying, moralistic, all-powerful hero. While he makes the most of the many “acting moments” afforded him by the script, he often gets bogged down when forced to demonstrate more complex emotions. Sadly, with his on-again-off-again English accent and omnipresent smirk, he’s the least compelling actor in the film.

The supporting cast fares far better. Freeman, despite the limitations of his role, plays it with a gravitas that stands in sharp contrast to Costner’s flippancy. He may be slumming in this film, but he never lets on, and in the process manages to masterfully originate the film’s only new role. Mastrantonio does a decent job in her role as Marian, living up to the standard set by Audrey Hepburn far better than Cosnter lives up to any of his predecessors. Christian Slater, Nick Brimble, and Michael McShane all deliver more than adequate performances as key members of the “merry men.”

Stealing the show, however, is Alan Rickman. Rickman is unquestionably the best thing about the film and is very much in his element as the snarling, villainous Sheriff of Nottingham. Chewing the scenery at every turn, Rickman is not only an absolute joy to watch, he delivers the film’s best and most quotable lines.

Kevin Reynolds’ direction is tight and crisp, though one gets the feeling that, had he managed to reign in his leading man just a bit, we’d have ended up with a much better film. Wisely, Reynolds never takes anything too seriously, juxtaposing the film’s darkest and most sinister moments with well-timed humor.

For fans of adventure films, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a solid, enjoyable ride.

The Disc

Since the mass popularization of DVDs, the phrase “Special Edition” has been bastardized out of all meaning. Frequently, two-disc sets contain far more filler than substance. Not so with the two-disc special extended edition of Robin Hood.

The print itself has been well-preserved. The film runs the gamut from scenes that are nearly completely dark to those that take place in blinding sunlight, and all fare well in this anamorphic transfer. Though some speckling and dust appear in earlier scenes, the print is nearly flawless otherwise.

The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack makes the most of all five channels, particularly in the forest scenes, where the rear channels are used to create a truly immersive effect. Michael Kamen’s stellar score comes through brilliantly as well.

There is no lack of special features on either disc, the most notable of which are 12 minutes of additional footage seamlessly inserted into the film. Most of the new footage involves a sub-plot that provides more background on the Sheriff and the witch Mortianna, and, though 12 minutes may not sound like much, dramatically changes the mood and tenor of many scenes. One gets the feeling that these scenes were initially removed because they not only allowed Rickman to further upstage Costner but also make the film much darker than the original theatrical release.

Rounding out disc one are two full-length audio commentaries. The first, with Reynolds and Costner, is a little too dry, but the second, which includes Freeman, Slater, and the writers, is quite entertaining.

Disc two is no less well-stocked. A remastered Dolby 5.1 version of Kamen’s score is the highpoint, far outclassing the popular CD soundtrack with full use of five-channel sound. A making-of documentary, cast interviews, production notes, and poster galleries round out the features.


Film: *** Disc: ****

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  • Michael Croft

    “[T]his is likely the most realistic version of the Robin Hood story ever filmed.”

    The sad part is that this is probably true. However, it’s still a spectacular failure if you’re looking for something that will give you the feel of crusades era England. My wife, for instance, look at one scene where they dumped open a chest of gold and howled because that was probably more gold than there was in England at the time Rickman’s (admittedly funny) “You, 8PM. You 8:15. Bring a friend” line really shows sloppiness about how time would be kept. It’s sloppy throughout and the more you know the less you like it. I recommend Men in Tights instead. At least it knows it’s a joke.

  • Scott Pepper

    I wonder if there is *any* film that accurately portrays this era in English history.

    And I agree that “Men in Tights” is an excellent send-up. The two films together make a decent double-feature.

  • Chris Kent

    Great review Scott. With all this talk about Robin Hood and reality, I suppose we should mention the British-made Robin Hood which came out the same year as Costner’s/Reynolds’ epic. It starred Patrick Bergin in the title role and was a revisionist take on the legend. Quite good if one is in the right mood, and superior to this film.

    Adventure of Robin Hood was a bit too summer blockbusterish and very uneven. I loved Richman’s portrayal, though considered it out of place in this mainly serious film. Costner was all wrong for the lead role and if memory serves, he and Reynolds battled constantly and had a falling out after this film – creative differences and all that. I believe Reynolds actually wanted his name removed from the film when the smoke had cleared……

  • Scott Pepper

    Oddly, Costner and Reynolds do not discuss any of the in-fighting in their joint commentary track (to my best recollection, anyway). It’s mostly back-patting and self congratulation, though Costner does admit his English accent sucked.

  • Chris Kent

    Glad to hear they’ve mended the fence. They go back a long way, having made Fandango together early in their careers. And the arguments I mention may have happened on Waterworld, rather than Robin Hood….but I thought it was this film.

    That being said, I have watched this film with kids before in a family atmosphere, and it really plays well in such a situation – as long as one does not have to explain the 8:00/8:15 reference, of course….:)

  • Eric Olsen

    my favorite Robin Hood is the Disney animated version you link to above: the characters are boiled down to their archetypcal essence, it’s funny, the Roger Miller songs are entertaining, and it’s even exciting. Ooo-da-lolly

  • Chris Kent

    Scott, I was wrong about Reynolds and Costner having a falling out on this film. It happened with Waterworld. My apologies.

  • Scott Pepper

    My wife is also a huge fan of the Disney version, which I have to agree holds up suprisingly better than any of the live action versions (with the possible exception of the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks silent film). If I recall correctly, it was also one of the last films that master animator Don Bluth worked on before leaving Disney, a fact alone that makes it worth watching.

  • Eric Olsen

    excellent review, BTW, thanks!