Retro-Review: Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves (1991)

This movie is one of the most perfect examples of how casting can ruin a film. It has been at least 20 years since I saw it last and many of the film’s stronger elements remain clear in my mind, but so does the woeful miscasting of Kevin Costner. It’s a frustrating film, excellent in many respects but dragged down by one central flaw.

The film begins with Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner) who has gone to the Holy Land on a crusade and been captured. He escapes with the help of Azeem (Morgan Freeman) and returns to England where the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman stealing every single scene) is plotting to steal the throne of the kingdom from absent King Richard with the help of a witch Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan). Robin assembles his band of outlaw revolutionaries and the whole thing ends in a climactic battle and a duel between Robin and the Sheriff.

First of all, the film is really well shot for the most part, with only a few early-90’s excesses (extreme close-ups with a wide-angle lens, or rock-video backlight on the hero shrouded in mist, for example). The locations are excellent, as are the costumes and production design. The pace of the film is brisk and action-packed, never a dull moment in what is a serviceable script told with exciting imagery and tight editing, though it does tip so far into melodrama at times it almost becomes pantomime. Maybe I’m being kind, but as someone who lived before the Lord of the Rings made sword movies cool, I had to appreciate the crumbs I got. In my opinion the script is fine as far as these kinds of movies went at the time, but I am aware of its flaws.

Except for Kevin Costner and Christian Slater, the movie’s casting is very good. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio makes for a fiery, independent Maid Marian, Morgan Freeman turns in an excellent performance and Alan Rickman absolutely runs away with the film. How ironic is it that the Sheriff of Nottingham steals the movie from the titular Prince of Thieves? Makes you wonder who the subtitle is actually referring to.

There is no doubt that Costner is the biggest deficit in the movie, and with him carrying the whole thing it’s hard to see past him. It’s not just the fact that his fake accent, when he bothers to attempt it, is distractingly dreadful. His delivery is so uninspiring that I just can’t believe the band of Merry Men would follow him into harm’s way. Every time he opens his mouth to speak his lines the film falls flat. He is like a black hole at the center of an otherwise decent movie.

By far, though, the best part of the whole production is the score by Michael Kamen. I remember owning the CD back in the day and listening to it over and over. The hero’s theme is suitably rousing and the love theme is quite beautiful, although it has the unfortunate distinction of Bryan Adams’ rendition of it as the hit single “Everything I Do” which got played out during the decade at weddings and on soft rock radio. The orchestral version used in the film is really lovely.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a movie I want to like. It’s got a lot going for it but everything is just weighed down by the lead actor. It’s unfortunate, because there is a lot to like, but it is so hard to overcome that one, glaring central flaw.

Retro-Trailer

Retro-Review – Leon: The Professional (1994)

I revisited this classic of 90’s action cinema when I found it on Netflix the other night and have to say it was quite enjoyable. I think in many ways it is quite dated, but mostly it has aged well, and the three leads (Jean Reno, Gary Oldman and an 11-year old Natalie Portman in her film debut) are its heart and soul. I still like it about as much as I did when I first saw it, which is to say very much.

Jean Reno plays Leon, a hitman and loner whose next door neighbor is murdered by crooked cops (led by scenery-chewing Gary Oldman as Stansfield) over missing drugs, with only the middle child, Mathilda (Natalie Portman), escaping by the dumb luck of having gone to the corner store when the bad guys came in. She turns to her mysterious neighbour for help and he reluctantly takes her under his wing. Luc Besson’s New York crime fantasy is awfully 90’s sometimes in its fashions and lighting styles, but the director has a flair for slick action set-pieces, even if credibility takes a back seat to some of the set pieces. Best of all, the movie feels very brisk and tight, moving from scene to scene at a nice pace so the movie doesn’t feel like it’s almost two hours long.

The action is very capably handled by Besson, who casts such charismatic actors in the leads that you become emotionally invested even though what’s going on is plainly ridiculous. Jean Reno is great as the understated hitman with a  heart of gold and he has great screen presence. He’s the perfect foil for Natalie Portman’s streetwise moppet, too-cool-for-school yet wide-eyed and curious at the same time. There are weird Lolita-esque undercurrents in their relationship which give the movie an interestingly odd tone quite different from other urban crime action movies, and I know the European cut has at least one scene cut from the US version (the one on Netflix) which treads the line, but it is what makes the movie remarkable among 90’s action films. Gary Oldman rocks in every scene he’s in, giving a great show of contained craziness as a psychopathic crooked narcotics detective. Again, his character is not believable, but the actor is so much fun to watch that I didn’t really care.

The movie is a great example of turning mediocre material into something highly watchable through great casting and clever direction. In other hands, I can easily imagine the movie being a boring, cliché-ridden technical exercise but Luc Besson has a wonderful eye and sense of humour in the way he balances brutal violence with corny sentiment and real tenderness, as well as a few jokes amid the weirder shadings of the Reno/Portman relationship. It’s definitely an exceptional action movie.

I would say Leon: The Professional is worth watching if you haven’t, and worth re-watching if you have. The cliché plot supports a strangely dynamic relationship story and the casting of Reno, Portman and Oldman is superb as they all deliver distinct, magnetic performances. The balance of elements is very capably handled by Luc Besson, a director with great aplomb at turning something stupid into something fun.