FILMS

Bow-and-arrow epic

Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood is off target

Brian D. Johnson June 17 1991
FILMS

Bow-and-arrow epic

Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood is off target

Brian D. Johnson June 17 1991

Bow-and-arrow epic

FILMS

Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood is off target

Kevin Costner seems to do things in twos. He starred back-to-back in two hit movies about the romance of baseball, Bull Durhamin 1988, then Field of Dreams in 1989. Now, after riding to Oscar glory as a soldier who goes native in Dances with Wolves, he is starring in another bow-and-arrow epic about a valiant outlaw who hides out in the wilderness, fights for justice nd goes skinny-dipping. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which opens this week across North America, is perhaps the most hotly anticipated movie of the summer season. But it remains to be seen whether Costner can score another box-office bull's-eye-and split the arrow of his phenomenal success with Dances. Co-written and co-produced by two Britishborn Canadians making their Hollywood break through, Pen Densham and John Watson, Rob in Hood marries the modern wizardry of Indiana Jones and Star Wars with the medieval legend of Sherwood Forest. An amalgam of myths old and new, the story is cumbersome and slow to kick in. Costner, meanwhile, does not seem completely at home in the role of

England’s most celebrated outlaw. Robin Hood’s aim, in other words, is not entirely true. But the movie is entertaining. As an action picture, even one that shoots off in too many directions at once, it offers a full quiver of thrills. There are also moments of delightful comedy. And Costner himself, expressing complaints about the filming, appears relieved by the results. After describing his difficulties on the set, he said: “I think the picture turned out pretty good.” Costner, 36, and other cast members talked to reporters earlier this month in New Orleans, where he is currently filming JFK, director Oliver Stone’s movie about the Kennedy assassination. He discussed Robin Hood with tempered enthusiasm. The movie is the product of a rushed schedule and a troubled shoot. Unlike Dances, which Costner directed, it was not his show. On the set, he quarrelled with Robin Hood ’s producers and its director, his friend Kevin Reynolds (Fandango, The Beast). He complained about the lack of rehearsal time. And his determination to adopt an English accent became a contentious issue.

Costner’s Robin Hood is, in fact, physically compelling but verbally awkward. The actor’s uneven attempt to round the vowels of his midwestern twang is disconcerting. “The accent was an obstacle,” acknowledged the actor, “because I had, like, a day to play with it. The director didn’t want me to do it. And I wasn’t getting support from the producers on it. But I thought it would be a mistake not to do it, because of the way the script was written.” Added Costner: “I knew I’d catch a certain amount of flak for it. If I didn’t do the accent, it would have saved me a lot of grief from these guys hassling me on a confidence level. But then you’d be saying, ‘Well, why didn’t you do an accent?’ ” The movie’s toughest challenge is living up to its billing—that Kevin Costner is Robin Hood. Acting more righteous than roguish, the actor is perhaps miscast. He brings an athletic charisma to the role, but his apple-pie sincerity seems misplaced. Mel Gibson would have been better. Costner is also upstaged by British actor Alan Rickman, who creates an outrageous caricature of evil as the depraved Sheriff of Nottingham. In one scene, after being thwarted by Robin Hood, the Sheriff tells his men: “Cancel all kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, cancel all merciful beheadings—and cancel Christmas.” Just as Jack Nicholson’s Joker overshadowed Michael Keaton’s superhero in Batman (1989), Rickman outstrips Costner with sheer nerve. His leering Sheriff is the real Prince of Thieves: he steals the movie.

The film-makers have added a number of innovative twists to the Robin Hood legend, including a character named Azeem (Morgan Freeman), a scimitar-wielding Moor who serves as Robin’s sidekick. Azeem is a model of Third World wisdom who keeps impressing the barbaric English with tools of his superior science—inventions ranging from the telescope to gunpowder. He also displays a talent for obstetric surgery.

The story, meanwhile, hinges on a premise that makes Robin the spoiled son of a wealthy family who has ignored his father’s advice and joined the Crusades. The movie opens with a jailbreak in a foreign dungeon. Robin helps Azeem escape from their Moslem captors, and together they travel to England. There, Robin vows revenge after finding his castle in ruins and his father murdered—framed by the Sheriff for witchcraft. In fact, it is the Sheriff who indulges in sorcery, aided by a wicked witch named Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan).

The movie also includes modern make-overs of familiar faces. Maid Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) starts out as a combative, independent woman, but dissolves into a helpless damsel after falling in love with Robin. Merry men Friar Tuck (Micheál McShane) and Littlejohn (Nick Brimble) are faithfully rendered. But a notso-merry Will Scarlett (Christian Slater) is a punk who resents Robin’s upper-crust background for reasons that become apparent in a soapopera twist at the end. The script called for a James Dean type to play Scarlett, Slater told reporters in New Orleans. “In other films,” he said, “Scarlett was this luteplaying dope dancing around the forest.”

One of the movie’s most charming innovations is the outlaw camp in Sherwood Forest. It is a maze of tree forts and catwalks defended by elaborate booby traps. And Costner’s roadwarrior costume, a studded outfit of earthtoned suede and leather, seems a definite improvement on the Peter Pan tights and feathered cap worn by Errol Flynn in the 1938 screen version of the legend.

In New Orleans, Costner showed up in a leafgreen shirt and snug blue jeans. The actor said that he accepted the Robin Hood role because “the script advanced the genre for me—it had a similar ring to The Untouchables,” a reference to the 1987 movie in which he starred as Eliot Ness. “These things have a funny way of starting to go good. But at the time, there are a lot of people snickering behind your back, saying, ‘No one wants to see another Robin Hood.’ And I remember the exact same thing happened on Untouchables—it was not that cool a movie to do.”

Costner says that he initially turned down

Robin Hood early last year because he had problems with the script and the project had no director. “It’s not my tendency to go to work when things aren’t right,” he said. The actor also turned down a rival offer to make a Robin Hood movie with 20th Century-Fox. But after his friend Reynolds was hired to direct Prince of Thieves, Costner came aboard, and Fox scaled down the rival feature to a TV movie, starring Patrick Bergin, which aired in May. “I thought it was very dull,” Costner commented.

For co-producers Densham, 43, and Watson, 44, bringing Robin Hood back to the big screen marks the high point of a collaboration that began in the early 1970s in Canada. The two British-born film-makers met in Toronto and set up Insight Productions. They spent 10 years creating documentaries and CBC television specials that won over 80 international awards and received two Oscar nominations. Densham also made films with communications guru Marshall McLuhan.

The CBC served as an invaluable training

ground, Densham told Maclean ’s recently. “It was like being given carte blanche to go out and experiment with the camera,” he said. The film-makers’ work attracted the attention of Canadian director Norman Jewison, who— along with actor Sylvester Stallone—sponsored their move to Hollywood in the early 1980s. “The Canadian ecosystem of film-making,” said Densham, “was totally inappropriate if we were going to make the kinds of films that Hollywood would find acceptable.”

In 1986, Densham and Watson teamed up with American producer Richard Lewis to form Trilogy Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based production company. And now, Trilogy has produced two of the summer’s biggest action movies, Backdraft and Robin Hood. Densham says that he rejuvenated the Robin Hood legend by borrowing elements from such classic novels as Moby Dick and King Solomon’s

Mines, and from such movies as Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Seven Samurai and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—“I steal from the best,” he said.

In a race to complete Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for spring release, last fall’s shooting schedule was reduced to 13 weeks from 15. The filming took place in France and England—one location was New Forest, just down the road from the Middlesex town where Densham grew up. Rifts among the film-makers developed during the arduous shoot and continued in the editing room. The producers fired the editor and took over the final cutting of the film from Reynolds.

The director was noticeably absent from the New Orleans media event. For his part, Costner told reporters: “I show up at these things when they [the movies] work or don’t work. People say, ‘This is your version of Robin Hood.’ That’s bullshit. This is writing that I’ve agreed to.” Added Costner: “I’m not the kind who takes the money and runs. If it’s a hit, I don’t forget everything bad that went on and say, ‘Oh, let’s all be friends.’ ” During the shoot, he recalled, “there was no time for rehearsal. Some of the things we said we were going to do we never did. Those things are important to me. I like acting. And there’s a process to it. I’m not a faucet. I’m not like this machine.” He pointed to the tape recorder in front of him. “You just can’t turn me on.” Rickman, however, said that he enjoys the “mayhem and panic on a film set.” He made changes to the script, ordered up an all-black costume and decided that the Sheriff “should be a cross between Richard III and a rock g star.” Unlike Costner, he had no complaints about the film| ing. “I was brought up in the 5 British theatre, where there was no time and no money,” said Rickman. “This was easy compared to that. And let’s face it, we could all be down a coal mine.”

Rickman, who launched his movie career as a terrorist leader in Die Hard (1988), says that he fears being typecast as a villain. Costner, meanwhile, talks enviously of actors who get “juicy” roles as bad guys. “It’s like a basketball team,” he sighed. “It’s like if I’m six-feet-10, ‘Well, you better play centre.’ ” Costner takes a journeyman’s attitude towards being a leading man. “I feel very much like a piece of a puzzle in movies,” he said. “I’m not interested in being the head flea on a dead dog—in having a really good part in a really shitty movie.” Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves may not be right on target, but Costner has given it his best shot—and put another feather in his Hollywood cap.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON in New Orleans