#5 in my ranking of Mel Brooks’ filmography.
I think this is the movie that Spaceballs was trying to be. Funnier, with a better lead (though I do like Bill Pullman), and a better understanding of the source material, Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a consistently amusing comedy from a pigeonholed filmmaker. Life Stinks was either an earnest attempt by Brooks to reclaim the kind of filmmaking he had started out doing with a movie like The Twelve Chairs or a deeply cutting satire of a subgenre of movies, but either way it failed miserably at both the box office and with the critical community. So, a few years pass and he comes back with something much more in his wheelhouse, a parody of Robin Hood.
In Jerusalem, Robin of Locksley (Cary Elwes) has been captured by the Muslims and imprisoned, chained next to Asneeze (Isaac Hayes) who helps him escape with the promise to look after his foreign exchange student son Achoo (Dave Chappelle), studying in England. Swimming all the way back to the coast of England (looking very much like a California coastline for some reason), he discovers that his ancestral home has been taken by Prince John (Richard Lewis) to pay the family’s taxes, leaving the blind family servant Blinkin (Mark Blankfield) alone in the remnants of the castle that has been carted away. After meeting up with Achoo, being beaten up by a gang of soldiers, Robin makes the acquaintance of Little John (Eric Allan Kramer) and the Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees), setting up the main conflict of the film.
Now, a plot description is pretty much, with some variation, just the story of Robin Hood, and I think that’s an advantage to the film. It’s a familiar tale, well told through the history of film, and there are obvious influences on story and visual aspects in particular from the Errol Flynn 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood as well as the recently released Kevin Costner vehicle Prince of Thieves from 1991. Using the familiar story, Brooks is able to simply find places to hang jokes in familiar story beats that provide a strong enough undergirding on which everything can rest. This is no High Anxiety where scenes drag out looking for jokes. It’s more of a rapid fire Airplane approach, keeping things moving to find the next gag.
Not everything hits, of course, but enough hits consistently to keep things amusing and engaging. In the opening prison sequence is a Maitre d for the prison, complete with a bowtie above his bare chest, desperate to please the screaming inmates that’s an entertaining bit of anachronism. The Sheriff’s tendency to mixing up his words is good for a chuckle (though that it never builds up to some larger gag in the end is a disappointment). The fight with Little John over a meaningless bridge with increasingly smaller bits of wood is funny. And through it all is Cary Elwes as Robin, and he’s a complete charmer in the role. He’d make a wonderful Robin Hood in a straight, light adaptation akin to Flynn’s work in the 30s, and it’s obvious that Brooks cast him in the lead due to his reasonable resemblance to Flynn as well as his effervescent charm.
The film follows the normal contours of the Robin Hood story with little variation. Robin Hood meets Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck) and they instantly fall in love while the Sheriff pines for her. Robin collects his Merry Men to rob from the rich and steal from the poor (something that never actually gets seen, by the way), irritating Prince John to the point that he sets up a trap at an archery tournament that Robin wins. There’s a big showdown at the castle where the Merry Men and John’s soldiers fight it out, all ending with the arrival of King Richard (Patrick Stewart).
The joy of the film is how it plays with the routine things. The opening credits mimic those of Prince of Thieves but becomes one of the main bits of real satire in the film when the people of a village complain about how their houses burn down with the filming of every Robin Hood movie because they always involve archers firing flaming arrows into the world. Friar Tuck is replaced by Rabbi Tuckman (Brooks), offering circumcisions to all the men with his little guillotine. The Sheriff hires out the hit on Robin to the local Italian mob boss Don Giovanni (Dom DeLuise), playing it like Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone with amusing beats in his one scene. Robin wins his contest with a PATRIOT ARROW after needing to reference the script for clearance for a second shot. There’s also a couple of musical numbers that, while smaller and less gaudy than the great numbers of Brooks’ career (“Springtime for Hitler” and “The Spanish Inquisition”) are good for a fair number of laughs. And, of course, Cary Elwes shines through it all, especially in the final fight with the Sheriff in Marian’s bedroom.
Is the film a hilarious piece of non-stop laughs? Not really. It really could have been tightened up a bit, shaving off maybe four to five minutes to get things moving a bit faster here and there. The Robin Hood story often feels like an excuse for jokes instead of finding ways to find fun in the absurdities of the story itself like a satire might. Not all of the jokes land, and Dave Chappelle looks bored half the time.
However, as a complete package, I get more out of this than any movie Brooks had made since Young Frankenstein. It may not be great, but I laugh through it every time without feeling like its dragging too badly or ever taking itself too seriously (the romance here is much more of a joke along with the rest of the movie unlike the romance in Spaceballs). I like it.