Despite its blockbuster pedigree, releasing Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was an unsung act of bravery. It was grittier and grimier than Robin Hood movie ever made. Previous adaptations made being the lovable rogue look like fun. Costner’s take is angrier, edgier, and fueled by revenge. Hell, the whole production is one boob or F-bomb away from an R rating. On top of all that, most of the lead actors in this classic British tale are played by Americans, with a wide variety of accents. Prince of Thieves may have had a box office superstar on its poster, but the final result was riskier than anyone gives it credit.
That gamble even extends to aesthetic of the story itself. This Robin Hood just feels more socio-culturally aware: Robin (Kevin Costner) is now a veteran of the Crusades, and the ravages of war have made him worldlier and wearier. As the film opens, he staggers back to England with an unlikely companion in tow: Azeem (Morgan Freeman), a Moorish warrior, owes Robin a life debt. The men arrive at Robin’s home to find his life in shambles. His nobleman father (Brian Blessed) has been murdered, and the family lands have been seized by the cruel Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman). A devastated Robin swears vengeance.
Now a fugitive, Robin reaches out to an old friend: Maid Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio) was once a love interest, even if the Robin she knew was a “spoiled bully.” She’s keen to help, but also wary of drawing Nottingham’s attention. When soldiers arrive at her estate, Robin and Azeem flee into Sherwood Forrest.
Here, the two men encounter a band of similar outlaws, whose main crime seems to be they can’t afford Nottingham’s taxes. This group is led by Little John (Nick Brimble), a burly, bawdy ruffian who’s handy with a staff. Next is Will Scarlett (Christian Slater), who talks big and harbors a mysterious grudge against Robin. Throw in dimwitted Bull (Daniel Peacock) and John’s headstrong son Wulf (Daniel Newman), and you’ve got a proper cadre of lovable ragamuffins.
As the Crusades made Robin more politically and culturally aware, he teaches his new followers to rebel against Nottingham’s tyranny. The local aristocrats have made a fortune bleeding the peasants, and Robin figures it’s time to steal it all back. He organizes his troops, and trains them how to use arrows and broadswords. They begin daring robberies along the road in Sherwood Forrest, gaining loads of treasure and an infamous reputation along the way. Much of that wealth is then dispersed back to the poor, endearing Robin and his band to the populace.
Naturally, Robin’s rowdy altruism enrages the Sheriff. He puts a price on the rogue’s head and deploys a small army of footman to track him down. Unfortunately for Robin, the Sheriff also loathes him for an entirely different reason: Both men vie for Marian’s affection, and everybody knows who’ll win that contest.
Prince of Thieves spends the first half of its 144 minutes slow-building this plot. If there’s a flaw in this otherwise premium popcorn flick, it’s that the story bogs a little in the setup. This might be a modern Robin Hood, but it’s still Robin Hood, and we know where this thing is headed: Swords, swashbuckling, and love conquering all. Thieves piddles around for a story with such a forgone conclusion.
But you know what? That’s just a quibble. So is the bashing of Costner’s nondescript accent. If Sean Connery can play a Russian sub captain with a Scottish brogue and John Wayne can play Genghis Khan with his aw-shucks-pilgrim schtick, Costner can do whatever he wants here. Go check out the Jeremy Irons-Gabriel Byrne version of Man in the Iron Mask. Hear a lot of French accents in that one? Nope. For me, Costner’s Santa Monica inflections have always been a non-issue.
Now, let’s talk about all the stuff Thieves gets right. That starts with the casting of the impeccable, irreplaceable Rickman as the main villain. I have a simple rule: If he’s the villain, that automatically bumps up the rating of any movie by a full star. Rickman doesn’t just steal his scenes. He pulls off an Oceans heist. His performance is a bizarre, brilliant blending of wacky histrionics, Machiavellian cruelty, and slithering sensuality. This movie was a childhood favorite of mine, and Alan Rickman is a big reason why.
Kevin Reynolds’ direction is another big plus. When the action finally gets cranking, Thieves delivers burly, impressive set pieces. We see hundreds of stuntmen fighting in a topography of catapults, burning huts, and falling trees. The climactic fight scene is expertly staged, and a highlight of the entire film. Reynolds also captures the stale, musty atmosphere of medieval England. (You can almost smell the manure in some scenes.)
Reynolds also picks the perfect composer to score his muddy epic. The late Michael Kamen–another American–supplies a grand, sweeping score that’s equal parts regal and rollicking. Throw in Bryan Adams’ cornball, over the top ballad “Everything I Do (I Do It For You,” and you’ve got a soundtrack for the ages.
All this adds up to a top-notch summertime movie. Prince of Thieves may not be perfect, but it checks all the right boxes. This is a suspenseful, well-acted romp that gets better as it goes along. Ironically, the filmmakers sought to deliver a Robin Hood unlike any other, and they end up with a definitive take on the lgendary character.
144 min. PG-13. HBOMax.