I happened to catch Kevin Costner’s widely derided 1991 epic medieval adventure Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves on the TV last week. I remember being blown away by the film as a kid. It was dark, scary, romantic, enthralling. Young Austin loved it (it should be noted that Young Austin would have almost certainly also loved Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen had he seen it, a film Old Austin considers the the nadir of the human species).
The film did not hold up well at the time, and 20 years worth of historical action adventure movies and fantasy epics later, it does not hold up at all. Prince of Thieves was soured milk when it hit theaters and it’s turned into a cement-hard sewer of rancid butter since. It fails on almost every conceivable level. It’s shot poorly, acted badly, and manages to be a work of astonishing historical inaccuracy despite being based on a purely mythic figure. Its humor is painful, its set-pieces boring, its romance laughable, its emotional scenes more painfully awkward and embarrassing than anything in the British version of The Office. Christan Slater is in it. Fishbowl cam shots are used to convey menace. And I haven’t even mentioned the accents, whose awfulness are now nearly as legendary as the figure of Robin Hood himself.
And yet, I enjoyed the movie. Partly because it’s so laughably but sincerely bad, and partly because Alan Rickman (née Severus Snape), who plays the Sheriff of Nottingham, alone among the cast and crew seems to have realized they were actually making a comedy. I thought the sheriff was terrifying as a kid, but he’s actually hilarious and the only intentionally funny part of this unintentionally hilarious movie. Rickman doesn’t just chew the scenery and ham it up as the Big Bad, he plays the role as outright comic, as if he were starring in Robin Hood: Men in Tights two years before it was even made. He’s parodying his own character as he’s playing it. That, my friends, takes skill.
I mean that as a high compliment to Rickman, who is as fine a comedic actor as he is dramatic. And he clearly knew how bad the film around him was, and how desperately it needed him to do what he could do. We know as a culture that Rickman can play a truly menacing, slithering heavy if need be. As much as J.K. Rowling, he’s made Snape one of the great fictional characters of our time, a man who can convey and provoke loathing, fear, pity, and admiration in a single sneer. Rickman could have played the Sheriff as he plays Snape and made him terrifying, a dark heart inside an ill-shaped beast. Instead, he makes the Sheriff a light of comic sunshine in a world gone stupid.
Rickman knew what he was doing, and thank St. Crispin he did, because he turns an ill-conceived catastrophe into a deeply entertaining ill-conceived catastrophe as long as he is on screen (which is blessedly often).
Prince of Thieves and its direct parody, Men in Tights, long stood as our time’s take on the Robin Hood mythos. Until, that is, Ridley Scott and Russel Crowe released their own version of the Hero of Sherwood Forest last year.
Scott’s Robin Hood is technically better than Costner’s version in every way. It’s shot better, cast better, acted better. It’s more historically accurate. Its visuals are striking, its tone consistent. The English accents are actually English, rather than faintly lisped Midwestern American.
But it’s infinitely more terrible as a viewing experience. Its pace is leaden. Its character arcs make no sense. Its palette ranges from “muddy gray” to “muddled gray.” Its ponderous tone and overly complex and political plot completely divorce it from the long line of Robin Hoods that came before, those swashbuckling bandits and dancing foxes. Scott’s film seems less like a glimpse into the past circa 1200 than 2000, when grim ‘n gritty reboots of campy classics were all the rage. That “grim ‘n gritty” reboot approach is fine and dandy with characters like Batman and James Bond, who started dark and then were turned into camp by the idiot 70’s. Robin Hood isn’t an original character, though, he’s a creature of folklore, a collage of conflicting accounts and evolving tales. There’s no foundational text.
Costner and Crowe are both terrible Robin Hoods. Neither gives the character the dashing romance, wit, and sense of adventure that defined him for centuries. But if you must watch one recent Robin Hood, go with Prince of Thieves. It’s a terrible movie, but at least it has the sense to be stupid. And it has Alan Rickman in it, stealing scenes from the rich actors around him, and giving them to the poor audience.