ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES
½*/**** Image C Sound B Extras B
starring Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
screenplay by Pen Densham & John Watson
directed by Kevin Reynolds
***/**** Image B Sound B
starring Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tina Majorino
screenplay by Peter Rader and David Twohy
directed by Kevin Reynolds
by Walter Chaw In the "careful what you wish for" sweepstakes, here's Kevin Costner, fresh off an Oscar victory for his naïve idyll Dances with Wolves, spending his hard-won Hollywood currency indulging best buddy Kevin Reynolds in a trilogy of pictures (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Rapa Nui, Waterworld) he produced for the express purpose of giving Reynolds more than enough rope. If you're in the sport of charting the positively Greek decline of the late-'80s box-office king, mark 1991 as Exhibit A, as his sad attempt at an English accent for Robin of Loxley was notoriously overdubbed in post-production after being deemed the stuff of legend in initial cuts. Aside from providing schadenfreudians endless fodder, it was the first real evidence that the Golden Boy's tragic flaw was the belief that his charm was based on something other than Gary Cooper's mantle of Everybody's All-American Doofus.
Don't get me wrong, I love Costner when he's a cowboy or a pitcher, a working-class hero like his Eliot Ness or his Crash Davis--not so much when he's the white-collar aristocrat struggling with introspection. It's possible he'd've been a more palatable Robin Hood if not for the proximity of this performance to Dances with Wolves and the feeling, borne out by the movie before us, that there lingered in Costner this saviour complex--that he somehow had something of substance to say about the plight of every single minority group. His Robin isn't a rake--no, his Robin is a pluralist equivocator and Communist agitator in the grandest free-love hippie tradition. With his Merry Men the filthy rabble taught to Swiss Family Robinson up in the film's stupidest scene (and that's saying something) to build a thriving socialist community designed to usurp capitalistic Nottingham, Costner's Robin would be right at home in the doomed commune at the end of Easy Rider.
The problem for Kevin Costner is that, emboldened by the PC good feeling of his greatest moment, he loses sight of the fact that he's at his best when he's the outsider in a pluralist dyad. He doesn't join society, society joins him. Costner makes sense as a dullard with a glimmer; he doesn't make sense as an architect of civilization. It's why something sentimental like Field of Dreams works as his Ray Kinsella ploughs under his crop, or why something preposterous like No Way Out, where his Ray Milland riff turns out to be the villain, also works. Consider even something that appears conventional like The Untouchables: lest we forget, Costner's Ness throws Nitti off a roof before returning to hear the jury's verdict. Waterworld works because there's no happy ending for its gill-bedecked Shane; The Postman doesn't work because it's through Costner's intervention alone that the post-apocalyptic world is saved. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (henceforth Robin Hood), there emerges the hard realization that Costner is the guy at the party who just read a primer on the Crusades and believes he has insight into the atrocity of that Christian campaign to which no one has ever been privy. This is Costner, of all people, condescending to his audience--which doesn't happen in his best films (at least, not often) but is the easiest thing to mark in his failures.
Aided by an abominable script by Pen Densham and John Watson, Costner's Robin is given a Moor, Azeem (Morgan Freeman, initiating a run of roles in which he plays the narrative enabler of a white man), who owes him a life debt. Kind of like what Chewbacca owes Han Solo. He functions in the same way, too, while allowing the film to have a patronized "expert" on hand to demonstrate to the white guys how they're wrong to underestimate the Muslim guy. Azeem gets the punchlines, the morality, the job of dispatching the secondary fiend, and the backhanded compliment of quiet wisdom that's bedevilled Hollywood minorities since Uncle Remus, the noble red savage, and Mr. Miyagi. This Robin, in the meantime, because of his cow-eyed, heavy-lidded reluctance to take the reins in his communal utopia, is effete and vulnerable to the broad, aged satire a feeble Mel Brooks slathers on it in a couple of years' time. The movie--and maybe this is the intention--is gay as a French holiday.
Opening in the Holy Land as envisioned by set designers at Shepperton Studios, the film introduces Robin escaping with Azeem and shitting out a platitudinous bit of drivel along the lines of the Crusades being amoral or something. Meanwhile, in Jolly Old, Robin's dad (Brian Blessed) is killed at his home by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman, who else?) because the Sheriff is Evil and Robin's dad is Good. In case there's any doubt, Rickman plays the Sheriff in high Snidely Whiplash fashion, almost literally twirling his moustache and oozing out lines like "Sorry to leave you hanging" to a dungeon full of tortured prisoners before consulting his witch crone mother in the basement. Standing before an inverted cross, he muses--as he toys with righting it--that there are times he can't really tell the difference. There are no moral ambiguities in Robin Hood, not even in the post-feminist figure of an armour-clad Maid Marion (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who objectifies our fairy lad upon spying him showering 'neath a waterfall and proclaims at regular intervals that the only things she needs to defend herself against the wolves in the wood are her dagger and her butch nanny. Not a problem, per se, that Marion has a bigger dick than Robin, since howlers like "Save it for the ladies" (followed immediately by "Give the man some meat"), coupled with Reynolds's puzzling editing choices, suggests that Robin has company enough in his brothers of the forest.
The central relationship of the flick isn't between Robin and the more-absent-than-not Marion (she's reduced to screaming hostage for the last part of the picture), after all--it's between Robin and Azeem as the white guy undergoes a moral and spiritual awakening at the hands of his enlightened slave. Costner is a terrible student. He's smug with no cause, eyes alight with the idea that his invitation to Azeem that he walk beside him rather than behind is proof of enlightenment when in truth Robin Hood is a parade of straw dogs marching in step like rats behind a hackneyed piper. The popularity of over-scored, "let's hug" bullshit like Robin Hood predicts the certainty of a one-term George H.W. presidency better than any number of Gallup polls. Clearly, the antidote to Reagan's "me" generation is Clinton feeling your pain.
Waterworld, on the other hand, rides the wave of the prevailing cinematic trend of the 1990s: the digital revolution that changed not just the worlds that were possible at the movies, but the certainty of our history as told by the dominant artform of the last century, too. Forrest Gump predicts Waterworld as surely as Waterworld predicts The Matrix, and the amount of disdain levelled upon it reminds of the fury with which the previous generation gathered together to destroy disco records in orgies of demolition. This is a society rejecting the most innocuous tip of the trends that will define it. To fete Forrest Gump (and then Titanic, and then American Beauty) while blasting Waterworld is a genuine misunderstanding of what it is that's culturally dangerous versus that which is simply inept. (Of course, it had the misfortune of starring someone who'd by then become America's favourite whipping boy.) More to the point, Waterworld is actually pretty good. Costner is loner Mariner, self-sufficient on a planet flooded by an ecological disaster (it's prescient, too) and gifted with a biological mutation that's caused him to grow webbed feet and gills. He's forced by circumstance into the role of protector of a woman, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), and her adopted daughter, Enola (Tina Majorino). Enola, it seems, has a map tattooed on her back pointing the way to fabled dry land and its promise of life off the ships and archipelagos that represent Man's last refuge.
Painstaking details of this future, like the currency being potting soil, or the way Mariner fishes off his tricked-out catamaran, carry the piece to the extent that the typically scenery-chewing Dennis Hopper villain is leavened with intelligence and a hint of satire. The Hopper villain's headquarters, for instance, is the Exxon Valdez, and aside from the premise itself, Waterworld's environmental activism proceeds as an agreeable by-product as opposed to a sermon. (Costner, as we've discussed, is a disastrously unpersuasive sermonizer.) There's not much to Waterworld (pegging it as a Mad Max ripper isn't far off the mark), but what does work about it--its energy, its sense of humour, and its action scenes--works pretty well.
Reynolds returns at the helm for Waterworld but, it's heavily rumoured, is replaced mid-production by Costner following cost overruns, snafus including the erection of a key set on an area of ocean notorious for its unpredictability, venomous press, and unpromising dailies. Thankfully Costner, having taken his lumps with his unpopular return to the western in the underestimated Wyatt Earp, has apparently learned a little about his popular appeal and positions the film as a throwback to George Stevens, 1950s attitudes while casting himself as bland, anti-social Alan Ladd. For all its bells and whistles, Waterworld is the very definition of a conventional picture, characterized as it is by Old Hollywood notions of right and wrong. When Mariner leads his people to the promised land, he declines to mix his genes with the triumphant family bond, choosing instead to head back on the high seas like Shane riding away with little Brandon De Wilde calling after him. Costner has restored society, but there's no place within it for his rebel without a cause. The film should be a blueprint for the actor; that he follows it up with Tin Cup (as a drunken golfer) is a good sign--that he follows that up with The Postman (as fucking Moses) is a bad one. From there, it'll be a constant resuscitation of image for him as he slowly comes to understand that his métier is the laconic outsider (Thirteen Days wisely casts him not as a Kennedy but as the Kennedy brothers' closest advisor, Kenny O'Donnell), and though he continues to slip into the wrong role on occasion (as a doctor in Dragonfly, for instance), enough self-deprecating parts like that drunk ex-baseball player in The Upside of Anger and it's possible Costner can stage a genuine comeback without a Tarantino swooping in to the rescue.
Universal has seen fit to restore Waterworld for DVD to a length approximating its "original" conception, meaning, essentially, that there's around 45 additional minutes of environmental minutiae to assimilate. Think more time on the archipelago, more time on Mariner's ill-fated shopping trip, and more of Mariner and Helen's curiously hot banter, with Tripplehorn, three years removed from Basic Instinct, showing herself in hindsight to be one of the '90s' key fatales--and certainly better matched with Costner than the similarly-undercharged Mastrantonio. Waterworld's virtues, in other words, are given ample opportunity to marinate in the extended version, which has the welcome effect of de-emphasizing the action sequences while proposing a more travelogue, holistic experience. Too, there's a sharper critique in it of organized religion than made it into the theatrical cut, as Hopper's Deacon lives up to his name. If anything, the picture predicts co-screenwriter David Twohy's masterpiece, The Chronicles of Riddick, in terms of its ambition, its throwback sensibility, and its sense, when all's said and done, of fun. It's as fun, in fact, as Robin Hood is not, offering up a sense of adventure in a convincing alternate reality. It doesn't preach to the converted, doesn't descend to incorporate token characters upon which its cardboard superhero can demonstrate his superior evolution; Mariner's superior evolution is forced upon him by the fact of global warming, not the pontification against it. Neither does Waterworld make the cardinal error of trying to convince that Costner's persona could ever be anything other than two-parts loser, one-part freak, and only really accidentally some kind of hero. He's not America, but he is Americana: our fondest fantasy of ourselves as misunderstood outsiders and fiercely independent. Although we care about community, we dream about riding fences.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves docks on Blu-ray in another extended cut that bloats the already-distended running time of the theatrical version by nine minutes with, for example, stuff like the aforementioned crucifix gag. The 1.78:1, 1080p video transfer, unfortunately, isn't anything to write home about, its colours curiously washed-out in a way that I don't buy is entirely purposeful. If there's a certain patchiness I'm going to blame on Reynolds's well-documented shortcomings as the captain of a ship, the image was very obviously put in a DVNR garlic press that further softens and flattens the detail of a source print that looks like it's going bad. Close-ups, especially, are dancing with digital bits and blurring. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio didn't set my world on fire, either, for while there is moderate activity in the rear channels, it's more a general flood of noise indistinct in its atmospherics. There's an isolated demo-worthy moment, however, as warning arrows thunk into the ground around Robin preparatory to a barbarian raid, and the dialogue is clear, albeit fluctuant in terms of volume.
Recycled from the 2003 Special Edition DVD, the first of two commentaries sees Reynolds and Costner in a jovial humour, the former only seeming strained when he contorts to over-praise Reynolds. Their falling-out is the stuff of apocryphal wisdom, so much so that their presence here together, already strange, reaches perverse depths as the greying star frequently stops to fawn over a camera set-up or badly-developed sequence. Reynolds strains to deflect a few of these plaudits, yet Costner insists. Apparently, in Costner's words, Reynolds is a "visionary." I don't believe he's kidding, but it's hard to tell for sure. From a throwaway early comment as the two discuss the film's 1.66:1 aspect ratio (evidently sacrificed for Blu-ray), Costner reveals that he's working on "another western"--which is, of course, the better-in-hindsight Open Range. Costner also briefly touches on the accent flap, declaring it as something he wanted to try and for which he still takes a great deal of drubbing. The second yakker sports screenwriters/producers Watson and Densham as well as Christian Slater and Morgan Freeman in an exercise in awkward discomfort. In no time flat, the happy duo of Watson/Densham credit Moby Dick, C.S. Lewis twice (first in declaring that Christians and Muslims are both "sons of Adam," then in revealing that Azeem was originally called Aslan), and David Lean once. Slater has next-to-nothing to say and Freeman sounds alternately bored and incredulous. His confession that he didn't correctly portray how Muslims pray is quickly swept under the carpet by humanitarian ambassadors Watson/Densham, but it does provide the funniest moment in either yakker.
Hailing from the year of the picture's release, "The Man, the Myth, the Legend" (32 mins.) is a CBS TV special narrated by Pierce Brosnan in a style that has got to be a put-on or, at worst, a misguided tribute to high-ham Rickman. Loose history gives way to lots of B-roll of not much happening on set in the stupidest possible way; you will learn nothing from this other than to avoid similar features in the future. "One-on-One With the Cast" (20 mins.) compiles junket interviews with Costner, Freeman, Mastrantonio, Slater, and Rickman that betray Costner to be quite full of himself during this period and Mastrantonio to be someone who feels she's too important to be doing something like this. Freeman is Freeman, what more is there to say? There's an option to listen to the score as an isolated track, though why anyone in their right mind would thrill to the chance at hearing Michael Kamen undiluted is beyond me. Equally beyond me is why anyone would investigate the supplements for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, so maybe they have something there. Oh yeah, Bryan Adams performs "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You" live at Slade Castle, acoustic-like, and everyone lifts their arms and sings along. Can't you feel the yub? Several of the film's trailers and TV spots round out the exhausting presentation.
THE DVD - WATERWORLD
Waterworld returns to DVD via a slipcovered two-disc set that contains the film's long version on the first platter and its theatrical release on the second. Both are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers with strong colours and contrast, but the extended cut shows considerably more edge-enhancement than the alternative. On the plus side, the new scenes are seamlessly spliced in. I do appreciate, by the by, that the theatrical version was packaged with the extended cut despite preferring the latter by about a half-star. The DD 5.1 audio is vibrant, boasting a logical and consistent use of all channels. While it may not have the zest of a lossless track, that's to be expected. Aside from the film's trailer, there are no extras on either disc. Originally published: June 16, 2009.