This is a terrible movie. It is also a wonderful movie. It is, indeed, everything a great Monsters & Mullets movie is supposed to be: equal parts nostalgia-evoking, horror-inducing, cringe-warranting and adoration-justifying. It is horrific contrivances running amok amidst the pillars of some of modern film’s greatest campy acting, chased down by the swelling tide of heroic music and lovingly beaten to death by absurd slow-mo action sequences.
It is Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. And it is amazeballs.
The film opens with a titles crawl over the Bayeux Tapestry. The use of the Bayeux Tapestry here is important for one of the following two reasons. A) Because the Tapestry represents the Norman invasion and William the Conqueror’s victory over the Saxon English king Harold a hundred years before this film is set, opening the movie by referencing the Tapestry subtly sets up the central socio-political tension of the Robin Hood myth between the conquering Normans and the subjugated Saxons, or, B) we learn later that Maid Marian embroidered all 230+ feet of the tapestry herself.
We get some exposcreention about how good King Richard is away leading the Third Crusade and almost everyone who went with him died in his absurd campaign to reclaim the holy lands. Good King Richard, the history professor inside me is compelled to point out, who spent less than ten months of his ten-year reign actually in England. He also once said he’d sell London if only he could find someone to buy it. Good King Richard. Have a cookie.
For our purposes, however, none of that matters. What does matter is this: Kevin Costner, in the world’s most horrifying fright-wig and beard, is languishing in a prison in Jerusalem, along with a bunch of other similarly beardy dudes and also Morgan Freeman. Seriously, to have grown that much hair they must have been imprisoned for, like, decades. Whatever. There’s some fighting (and Robin’s first Heroic Utterance: “this is what English courage looks like”) and Robin and Morgan Freeman escape, Robin’s buddy Peter in tow. Peter immediately gets shot and makes Robin swear to take care of his sister, Marian, as he dies. Robin and Morgan leave dead Peter behind and hide in a dark corner nearby, to share a melon (which Morgan Freeman awesomely breaks open across his knee) and some exposition. Morgan Freeman is Azeem, and he owes Robin his life, so he’s going to hang out with him until he has repaid him. Robin doesn’t work very hard to talk Azeem out of this plan.
BRIAN BLESSED, who plays Robin’s father, is hanging out in his drafty castle, doing whatever it is one does in drafty castles when one is estranged from one’s son. A servant tricks BRIAN BLESSED into going outside, where he’s accosted by the Ku Klux Klan, here led by Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham. There’s some “join us!” “never!” to-ing and fro-ing and then all the Klanners rush at BRIAN BLESSED, and Nottingham smiles evilly, and we’re supposed to understand that the Ku Klux Klan has overpowered BRIAN FUCKING BLESSED? Doesn’t seem very likely, does it?
Speaking of unlikely, Robin and Azeem arrive at Dover. Robin rolls around in the wet sand for a bit because that’s how he demonstrates affection, then tries to get Azeem kidnapped back to Jerusalem. Azeem anticipates the attack and scares off the heavies, who splash back to their little boat and paddle away. Azeem shakes his head at Robin and explains that an awareness of one’s surroundings is actually an asset in battle: "No man controls my destiny. Especially not one who attacks downwind and stinks of garlic." Robin shrugs and boasts that his home is close by; they’ll be in Nottingham by nightfall. Nottingham, by the way, is 164 miles away from Dover as the crow flies. It would take three and a half hours to drive the distance today; in 1194, when this movie takes place, the journey would have taken rather longer.
In one of the film’s most famous goofs, however, Robin and Azeem appear to go to Nottingham by way of Hadrian’s Wall, the wall the Romans built to keep the Scots out of England in AD 122. It’s a journey of close to 500 miles, most of which Robin spends hooting like an owl and making fun of Azeem for going to prison because he loved a woman. Was she worth it, Robin wonders? Worth dying for, Azeem responds. Robin scoffs. Women! Bah. Robin Hood is such an asshole.
Azeem excuses himself to go pray, and Robin diverts himself by getting into a fight with Guy of Gisborne (played with oleaginous intensity by Michael Wincott) and his band of nameless thugs, who are chasing down some scrappy kid for poaching. Robin fights off the thugs and proclaims himself Robin of Locksley before throwing a crossbow at Gisborne. Gisborne runs away, because no matter how awful and greasy his mullet is, Robin’s is ten times worse. Robin then berates Azeem for not coming to his rescue. Azeem rolls his eyes. “You whine like a mule,” he points out. “You’re still alive.”
Gisborne heads back to Nottingham and whines like a mule to the sheriff, his cousin. The entire scene (and, indeed, every villains-only scene in this movie) is shot with fisheye lenses, which distorts the film’s already cartoonish villains even more cartoonishly. It’s an incredibly annoying effect, and I’m docking director Kevin Reynolds three Awesome Points for doing it.
Robin and Azeem finally make it to Locksley Castle, which is a burned-out husk. BRIAN BLESSED is hanging in a cage from one rafter, very much dead. His devoted servant Duncan is still alive, and has been shuffling around the castle for however long, subsisting on misery and waiting for someone to show up and Do Something. He’s been blinded, but he knows Robin’s voice and is delighted to have someone onto which to dump all the exposition he’s been storing up. The sheriff and his witch are running Nottingham; BRIAN BLESSED wouldn’t join their evil league of evil; the sheriff had BRIAN BLESSED excommunicated for witchcraft and then executed. Robin buries his pops and then, according to that incredibly annoying cinematic convention, slices open his palm and makes a blood oath. Being Kevin Costner, however, his blood oath is delivered with Shatnerian intensity: "IwillnotrestuntilmyfatherisAVENGED!" he screams, in one breath.
The Sheriff of Nottingham, meanwhile, skips down to his dungeon to go hang with his witch. The witch is, indeed, a witch, all warts and thinning hair and heterochromia iridim. She’s also a bit of a drama queen, and wails for a while about “the painted man” before bursting into tears on Nottingham’s shoulder.
Robin trundles off to go find Marian, dead Peter’s sister. He gets a frosty welcome at Castle Marian, prompting Azeem to bust out another winning one-liner. “The hospitality in this country,” he notes drily, “is as warm as the weather.” Robin finally gains entrance, while Duncan learns that Azeem is a moor, the revelation of which makes Duncan literally reel with horror. It’s awesome. Robin, meanwhile, is disappointed to discover that Marian is now a fat middle-aged lady with a peculiar husky voice, and she isn’t interested in his help or blood-oaths or whatever. Then she summons a knight to escort him out. Robin fights, of course, and gets his ass kicked until he realizes that the knight is actually a woman and rips off her helmet. Surprise! It’s the real Marian! She knees him in the nuts, which he totally deserves. Then in what will become her trademark move, she bursts into tears and runs away.
Later Robin and Marian have a somewhat more civilized conversation, where Marian reveals that Robin used to be a tremendous bully and burned her hair. Not pulled her hair, mind, but actually burned it, which is incredibly disturbing. Anyway, he blusters a bit about taking care of her; she demurs with obvious and increasing annoyance. Eventually Azeem notices that the sheriff’s men are heading their direction; there’s a great (totally historically inaccurate) bit where Robin is baffled by a telescope, and then our heroes steal Marian’s horses and flee to Sherwood forest. Robin’s horse gets shot in the butt, poor thing.
Sherwood forest! But it’s haunted! Robin busts out another Heroic Utterance: “either we take our chances with the ghosts or we become ghosts ourselves!” They’re accosted by a bedraggled group of men, who demand money to let our heroes pass. Robin gets off his horse to fight their leader, John Little, all the while being catcalled by Christian Slater’s Will Scarlet. Robin and John fight, and Robin loses. A lot. “Any great ideas?” he calls to Azeem. Yes, Azeem has some great ideas. “Get up. Move faster,” he suggests.
Robin eventually wins not by being a better fighter, but by tricking John into thinking he’s drowning. If this were a brilliant revisionist take on the Robin Hood mythos, I’d be enchanted. But it’s just another scene where Robin comes off as kind of a dick. Whatever, now that they’ve fought they’re best friends, so John Little takes Robin back to his secret Ewok village camp, with Christian Slater sulking along in tow. Everyone sits around a campfire drinking and making dick jokes. Even Scrappy Kid is there, punching holes in his 11-year-old liver along with the rest of ‘em.
Robin decides to go see Marian again. He cleverly disguises himself with a cloak and accosts her at church. They flirt, awkwardly, at the altar. She tells him to take a bath. They part ways, and he bustles off to see the bishop who excommunicated his dad. She, meanwhile, tries to distract Alan Rickman, who is also bent on seeing the bishop. Robin gets there first, but the bishop can’t help much: his dad confessed, the end. Then Nottingham shows up. Robin and the sheriff fight a bit, and Robin runs away as Nottingham howls after him about how he’s going to hang him by his own entrails and cut his heart out with a spoon. (Because it’s dull, you twit; it’ll hurt more.) The sheriff beats some bystanders with a bag while bellowing “CewLOOOOZE the GAAAATES.” Then he beats the guard who didn’t get the gates closed in time. Robin escapes, improbably with a sack of bread.
Back in Sherwood, Robin dumps the contents of the sack of food he just liberated all over the ground (thanks, Robin) and then Heroically Utters his intention to transform the raggedy Sherwood outlaws into a lean, green fighting machine. Gisborne and the sheriff have a talk about Robin; Gis suggests giving him a nickname to strike fear into the hearts of the populace. Like, uh, “Reeking Robin.” Nottingham and I both roll our eyes. Then Gis leads Nottingham’s thugs on a raid, and lo there is MAYHEM GALORE as he burns down some hovels. The great unwashed show up in Sherwood, ready to proclaim Robin their messiah. Robin and Christian Slater argue a bit about whether or not Robin’s a coward and Robin shoots Slater through the hand. That’ll learn him. Robin then stands on a stump and Heroically Utters an entire speech about how the forest will provide food and shelter and everyone will be very happy and freeeeeee. And then we get the dreaded training montage, where Robin and Azeem teach the great unwashed how to sharpen sticks and build tree houses.
All this is interspersed with a scene where Nottingham has a hissy fit. He tosses a goblet of wine at a scribe and demands that he "cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas." Then he skips down to the dungeon and stabs a table.
Robin, meanwhile, is giving dirty bread to peasants. He then steals Friar Tuck from Gisborne and ritually humiliates the poor fat friar. Tuck awesomely bites Robin’s leg before deciding he likes being the butt of innumerable bad jokes, and joins the merry band of filthy outlaws.
Gisborne, also a bit of a drama queen, is sad about having lost Tuck to Robin. He seeks out Nottingham in his dungeon and cries on his shoulder. Nottingham, naturally enough, runs Gis through. But he lessens the blow a bit, so to speak, by pointing out that he at least didn’t use a spoon.
Meanwhile, Marian and her maid are also wandering around Sherwood. They’re accosted by two particularly dim merry men, whom they handily defeat. Marian then demands to see Robin. Robin is spending his downtime wading around in a pool; Marian is delighted to see his pasty butt floating through a waterfall. This, mind you, is not actually Costner-butt; Costner demanded a body-double for this distant and mist-shrouded shot of a naked ass. Whatever; they flirt and Robin takes her to the ewok village. He shows off a bit, and then Marian shows him up in front of his men (oops!). Robin waxes tiresomely on about how good and noble he is. Marian seems to buy it. Contrivedly, Little John’s wife goes into labor, and Tuck and Azeem argue about how to save her and the baby. (Azeem, of course, is right.) The baby is born, and Marian carries it around cooing, and then she and Robin exchange melting looks and whisper their secret wishes about how all they really want out of life is peace in our time and a chicken in every pot. Christian Slater tries to dance with Marian but Robin, being dependably dickish, cockblocks him. Christian Slater retires behind a tree to sulk. Rightfully so; Robin is a major asswipe.
Marian and Robin kiss. Robin’s like, “now you’ve been here you can never go home! Because this is a secret camp!” Marian cheekily explains that she asked to be blindfolded on her way in. Robin, out of lame excuses for false imprisonment, is forced to send Marian home. He asks that she take Duncan. Duncan tries to stay behind, because he (improbably) loves Robin. But Robin brushes off the old man’s wishes and makes a joke, because Robin Hood is an asshole.
So Marian is boated away (why is there a lake in the middle of Sherwood forest?) and she and Robin stare meaningfully at each other as the music swells and mist rises between them and their Great Love would be a lot more convincing if at least one half of this romantic pairing had the ability to emote.
Meanwhile, one of the only two useful characters in the entire film is busy trying to figure out how to defeat Robin Hood, the dimmest hero this side of that idiot in Dragonslayer. Nottingham, at his witch’s suggestion, hires himself some mercenaries. Some Celtic mercenaries, oooooo. He also hatches a plan to impregnate Marian and get his own child on the throne.
Marian is back in her castle writing a letter to King Richard, outlining her interpretation of this film’s lousy excuse for a plot (Sheriff peasants murdered, people stampeded, and cattle raped), asking him to come home, and signing her own name. No way this could go horribly wrong, right? She gives the letter to her maid to deliver, whom the evil bishop insists on having one of his men accompany. The man knocks the maid out and steals the letter. Meanwhile, Marian is humming to herself while embroidering the Bayeux Tapestry. She is, of course, betrayed and captured. Duncan gets on a horse and hopes it’ll take him to the Ewok village. The Sheriff, because he’s not an idiot, has soldiers follow Duncan. SHOULDA BLINDFOLDED THE HORSE, EH ROBIN?
Duncan does, actually, lead the sheriff’s men into Robin’s camp. The sheriff’s Celtic men! They’re wearing skulls and have painted themselves blue! Mayhem ensues. Robin’s men fight back pretty well until the Sheriff shows up. Nottingham watches his men get their asses kicked and then is like “the encampment is made of wood, you assholes; burn it the fuck down.” Somehow, his men have gotten siege machines deep into the forest. They fling burning stuff at the Ewok village. Many, including Scrappy Kid and Christian Slater, are captured. Robin is defeated. Nottingham pimprolls back to Nottingham and tells Marian he’ll spare the women and children he just captured if she marries him. Also, Robin is dead. Marian bursts into tears and runs off, because that’s how smart, enterprising women deal with stress and trauma.
Robin’s not dead. Fortunately, neither is Azeem – the useful party member, recall. Alas, poor Duncan’ll be rewarded for his lifetime of affection and loyalty in the heaven. Robin staggers on-screen backlit and shaggy and Heroically Utters some nonsense about saving everyone and fixing everything. His merry men, all five of the survivors, are all “….”
The Sheriff of Nottingham’s Evil Dungeon of Evil is filled with merry men, hanging upside-down from the ceiling or chained to barrels and stuff. Nottingham evils, evilly. Slater offers to turn Robin in. Scrappy Kid wails, and Nottingham and Slater yell at him to shut up in unison. It’s a wonderfully weird scene. Nottingham lets Slater go.
Back at the Ewok village, Slater staggers in as dramatically as possible (seriously, this film is populated entirely by drama queens) and confesses that he’s Robin’s half-brother. Robin gets stupidly excited about having a brother. The two totally hug it out. But is Slater a traitor? Will he betray Robin Hood? Or was one hug enough to make up for a lifetime of resentment? Little John speaks for the audience when he mutters “we’re all daft buggers.”
Right! It’s time for a planning montage! Azeem teaches the infidels about gunpowder (I assume he’s been refining saltpeter from nightsoil and decomposing bodies in his off-time) while Robin makes other people make arrows, or something. Then they boys all sit around in a circle and move little stones around a fake map of Nottingham’s castle and stab the ground with daggers for emphasis. Mrs. Little John wants to help, too, but the menfolk poo-poo her. All the men, that is, except Robin, that beacon of progressive gender politics, who is more than happy to recruit her, too.
And so the great day arrives. Our heroes infiltrate the castle, Robin smearing himself in handfuls of still-steaming horse-shit as a disguise. (He really does have the best disguises.) Tuck and Azeem sneak the gunpowder in disguised as barrels of wine to celebrate the sheriff’s wedding, stashing the barrels around the courtyard in tactically advantageous spots. Everyone else sort of wanders around looking for a good place to set up an ambush, or something. Marian and Nottingham hang out at a window, checking out the festivities. Marian is very unfriendly. Nottingham is totally unfazed.
As the prisoners are being lined up on the gallows, Scrappy Kid notices Christian Slater in the audience and outs him. The sheriff insists Slater join the fun, and has the headsman tie him to a nearby barrel – a barrel we know is filled with gunpowder. In a spectacular example of why this movie is partially awesome, the headsman hawks a lump of sputum onto Christian Slater’s face as he ties him down. It’s so gross. As Robin Hood tries desperately to come up with some sort of Plan B, Nottingham gives the signal and the executions begin – with Scrappy Kid’s stool being the first kicked out from under him. Robin starts trying to shoot through the rope the kid’s hanging from with an arrow.
Marian finally, finally figures out that the bad guy was lying and Robin isn’t actually dead. She shrieks “RAWWW-BINNNN!”, the most laughable scream this side of the new Krayt Dragon call, before Nottingham pulls her away from the window.
Fighting! Little John muscles the gallows over with the strength of his pure awesome, saving the merry men. Azeem blows some shit up. Robin shoots that famous slow-mo flaming arrow at the headsman as he’s about to behead Christian Slater. A bunch of barons, all assembled behind Nottingham and Marian, begin to question Nottingham’s ability to rule England, since he apparently can’t run a simple wedding/execution without a foul-up. Nottingham yells “shaddup, yew TWIT” at one of them before grabbing Marian and dragging her away.
Robin and Azeem seat themselves on a catapult (maybe an onager?) and insist on being launched over the castle’s wall in pursuit of Marian and Nottingham. Echoing Robin’s teasing of him early in the movie, Azeem asks Robin if she’s worth it. Robin, without a hint of irony, responds earnestly “worth dying for.” And lo, there was character development, and lo it was uninspired.
They get slung over the wall. Christian Slater adorably editorializes “fuck me, they made it!” Apparently this line was ad-libbed. A+, Christian Slater.
Fortunately for our heroes, they land in a hayrick. Good thing that catapult didn’t fling them three feet to the right, where they’d have met sticky ends on the keep’s pavingstones, eh? They bounce to their feet and chase after Nottingham and Marian.
For some reason, Nottingham drags Marian up instead of down into the dungeon. He nabs the evil bishop along the way, and in some room at the top of the castle the little party is met by the witch, looking especially witchy, and insisting that the bishop marry Marian and Nottingham right away. The bishop who, remember, is not exactly the very Rev. Mr. Upright himself, is still appalled by the collection of dead roosters and upside down crosses at the altar he’s being presented. But, you know, a gig’s a gig. The witch grabs Marian’s tummy and cackles that “she’s ripe” and if Nottingham does the deed right now she’ll have a son. Nottingham, suddenly very invested in forms and formality, still wants to get married first. So he starts disrobing himself and her while the bishop begins the ceremony.
Adding to the din and confusion, Robin and Azeem have discovered the blessed chamber within which proceed the tender nuptials, and are trying to smash the door down using a statue of Alan Rickman. For shame. Robin runs off to find a more cinematic means of egress while poor Azeem is left pounding away at the door with the sculpted head of the sheriff of Nottingham. Everyone is left wishing for a movie where Alan Rickman and Morgan Freeman got more screentime together.
Nottingham is, however, more or less unruffled by all the excitement, and continues his wedding/rape while the bishop intones and the witch cackles and Azeem batters and Robin Hood… crashes through a window. The queen of all the drama queens has entered the room! The wedding ceremony wraps up and the bishop scarpers. The witch likewise excuses herself, and we’re left with our hero, our villain, and our love-interest, two of whom are pretty close to nude for the twelfth century. Robin, meanwhile, is wearing a lot of layers, which may explain why the black-clad, whip-thin Nottingham beats the shit out of him, all the while eviling away about various villainous things. Man, Professor Snape was fit.
The witch, meanwhile, has attacked Azeem – the painted man of her visions, it turns out. So she squirms around and abases herself before him like the puppy from hell, to which Azeem is like “…the hell?” Then, of course, she tries to run him through with a spear. And gets him in the leg, but manages to skewer herself as well.
Friar Tuck gets his own little plot, too – he confronts the evil bishop and pushes him out a window.
Robin and Nottingham (hey, his name’s George!) have a great fight – they hack at each other and jump around on furniture and throw things and sweat and get tired. I love a good sweaty sword-fight, I really do. And the choreographer and cinematographer use the room really well – everyone swings around it gorgeously. It is, in all fairness, a well-done fight scene. Even if Rickman does spend most of it growling.
Unfortunately for us, Nottingham’s drama queen instincts prove to be his undoing. He pins Robin into a corner, yells “get ready!” and then looks away before bringing his sword down on Robin’s head. Which gives our lumpen hero enough time to take him out with a dagger. Rickman makes the most of what he’s given, though, and dies fairly horribly.
Robin and Marian stand up and stare and whimper and heave breathily at each other before oh my gosh the witch! She busts into the room screaming, but Azeem busts in right after her and smashes his scimitar through her sternum. All the baddies are dead! Marian whimpers a bit more then flings herself at Robin, and they make out.. You came for me! You’re alive! I would die for you! You know the drill.
We end on a marriage scene, of course – an honest to goodness Ren Faire style wedding in the woods, with falling leaves and twittering birds and Marian’s wearing a fucking wreath on her head. So’s Mrs. Little John, and hers has whole pomegranates in it. I’m not making this up. “If any man can show just cause… let him now speak, or else hereafter forever hold his peace,” etc. OH BOY, SEAN CONNERY CAN SHOW JUST CAUSE! JAMES BOND IS KING RICHARD. Except he doesn’t actually have any objections; he just wants to make out with Maid Marian a little, first. They marry, everyone cheers.
Then Friar Tuck addresses the camera and tells us to all go get drunk. AAAACK FOURTH WALL INTEGRITY BREACH ABANDON ABANDON ABANDON.
Wow. So, like, insofar as Robin Hood movies go... this one ain't much. It blows the major tenants of the Robin Hood mythos out of the water, but without any real effort to say much about them, or the stories as a whole. The Robin we all know and love is a silver-tongued archer with a heart of gold and balls of steel. Here he's a lumpy dimwit with bad hair. The usual Robin Hood setpieces, like when he splits an arrow with another arrow? Here treated more as part of a master list to be checked off than vital components of a legend that's been popular for a thousand years. There's nothing revisionist about this version of Robin Hood; it's just a whirlwind of action set in ye olden tymes, populated by well-known but underserved famous characters. Even Sir Walter Scott, who loved nothing so much as a random cameo by a Robin Hood figure, would shake his head at Kevin Reynolds' mess of a movie.
In the interest of full disclosure, however, I fucking love this movie. It is awful. But it is a lot of the kind of awful I most dig – it’s an exemplar of total commitment to its own brand of ridiculousness.
So, remember how I started this off with “it was the best of movies, it was the worst of movies”? Because, damn, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves is all those things. There are loads of tiny, wonderful details to enjoy – things like the headsman spitting on Christian Slater, and Nottingham’s statue of himself. And there are some fucking amazing actors, having an absolute blast: Harold Innocent as the evil bishop, Michael McShane as Tuck, Michael Wincott as Guy of Gisborne, Geraldine McEwan as the witch, even Christian Slater in one of the few performances of his career not informed entirely by his preoccupation with Jack Nicholson. And Morgan Freeman gives a gloriously understated performance as Azeem (and gets all the best lines, really). But, of course, the movie belongs to Alan Rickman and his performance, equal parts uber-controlled and utterly unhinged. The movie inflates like a teenager with a crush when he’s onscreen, and dries up like a beached jellyfish on a sunny day once he’s gone. It is, far and away, the one reason anyone will every watch, enjoy, and remember this film in the years to come.
As far as Robin Hood movies go, we'd all be better off if we just watched Errol Flynn have it out with Basil Rathbone again. As far as Monsters & Mullets classics are concerned, however, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves is right up there with the worst of the best and the best of the worst.
Oh yeah, one last thing: Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves is Mark Charan Newton's "secret favorite film." Secret no more, Newton.
So many mullets! Of course, Robin Hood has one. And Guy of Gisborne sports a greased-up mullet, as well. And a lot of the secondary characters have mullety hairstyles, too. Weren’t we past all this in 1991?
Marian is a bad-ass until the moment Robin Hood shows up. She’s a proper victim by the end of the film. Mrs. Little John spends most of the film being a victim, but does occasionally kick butt. Y’know, when her husband or kids are threatened. ‘Cause that’s all women care about. Husbands and children. And let's just take the whole "evil lady witch trope" as battered to death, shall we?
That’s one big, glorious no.
If there’s anything we learned from Ridley Scott’s recent effort, the Robin Hood myth is alive and well and sort of, like, unruinable.