They say that comedy is hit or miss, but if Mel Brooks were Robin of Locksley launching an arrow in the famed archery contest, it would have missed the target by so much that it would have landed on another movie set. And unlike "Blazing Saddles" (1974), where Brooks does use such postmodern self-conscious fun to great effect, that's not the case here.
"Robin Hood: Men in Tights" (1993) is quite simply one of Brooks' weakest films. It's uninspired, it's tired, and it's poorly written. And while one might be quick to absolve Brooks by noting that he wasn't responsible for creating the story--that dubious distinction belongs to J.D. Shapiro and Evan Chandler--no one held a crossbow to his head. He worked right alongside them on the screenplay, then yelled "Roll 'em" when he should have repeatedly shouted "Cut!"
Jokes depend upon the surprise factor for laughs, and if an audience has already seen it a bunch of times or it's so obvious that sixth graders could have written the same gag, there's no surprise, no delight, and no laughter. My wife was in a different room and remarked, "I don't hear anyone laughing." I watched this with my pre-teen son, and he asked at one point, "Is this a comedy?" Well, if you have to ask, it's probably not much of one. The target was generally the Robin Hood legend and specifically the Kevin Costner film "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" (1991) and Errol Flynn's "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1939), but it misses the mark.
Compared to "Spaceballs" (1987), which was full of funny and not-as-funny gags, this one has dumber lines and fewer jokes. There are long stretches where it simply plays out like another rendition of the Robin Hood film cycle, and in some scenes the original films are far more entertaining than this parody. That's certainly the case with the scene in which Robin boldly enters the castle of Prince John and interrupts his banquet with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Aside from the gag of having Robin carry a dead boar to his "hosts" rather than the king's deer that he shot in the 1939 classic, the Flynn version plays out with far more humor and energy. That's also the case with the archery contest, in which Robin disguises himself to compete for the hand of Maid Marian.
I was surprised, actually, that someone didn't cut off Marian's hand and hold it up so all contestants could see the prize. That kind of dumb-pun surface humor abounds in "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," whether it's a "walk this way" tired gag in which everyone apes the way that the Sheriff of Rottingham ambles, or a "lend me your ears" entreaty that results in all the peasants pulling them off and throwing them at Robin. It's simply not funny. "Watch my back." "Your back just got punched twice" is a little funnier, but all the jokes are lying on a surface like a carpet of fall leaves. It didn't take much work or brainstorming to find those jokes, and that's the biggest problem with this film.
When the blind Blinkin (Mark Blankfield) asks, "Did you say Abe Lincoln?" and the retort is "No, I said 'Hey, Blinkin,'" you almost have to wonder why Brooks and his writers bothered to insert the "joke." Same with a jailer who's dressed like a mater 'd and says to Robin, "I cannot seat you without proper attire." Cameras pan the scurvy residents of the prison, and then cut back to the two-shot in which we see the jailer putting a fake ZZ Top beard on Robin. Funny? Uh, not when Brooks & Co. just leaves it and moves on. You have to wonder if some of these jokes might have done more than just sit there like toads had Brooks prodded and pushed them a bit more. But "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" feels like a lazy film that takes the easy way out . . . and takes too long to do that.
Occasional lines can be funny, as when Robin, ready to leave the Crusades and return home, meets a black warrior who says he has a son in England, a son who "is head strong and cock sure . . . or is it the other way around." And during a scene in which Dom DeLouise appears as Don Giovanni in a "Godfather" spoof, you find yourself laughing. But mostly you find yourself thinking that sequences were more entertaining in the original movies that "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" spoofs. And the scene where the merry men dance? It's surprisingly funnier when Brooks' scene is parodied in "Shrek" (2001). Maybe that's because it was a warmed-over gag from "History of the World: Part I." Likewise, when Brooks throws in one of many anachronisms and has the crowd at the archery tournament going "Whoomp, whoomp, whomp" in fist-pumping fashion, it's hard not to think of the medieval crowd in "A Knight's Tale" (2001) who do the wave and dance to "(We Will) Rock You!" They pull off the gag with far more energy and effectiveness than Brooks manages.
You have to give credit to the cast, though, because each of them takes a turn carrying the burden of a reaction shot to a gag that was obvious or un-funny. Cary Elwes ("The Princess Bride") plays it pretty straight as Robin, with Richard Lewis having a little more fun as Prince John and Roger Rees (who played Robin Colcord in 17 episodes of "Cheers") having the most fun with a limited amount of built-in humor. Dave Chapelle gets an occasional funny bit as Robin's black companion Achoo. Though the sneeze jokes are tediously obvious (or obviously tedious, take your pick) he does get a funny gag when he puts on Malcolm X glasses for a quick allusion. For the most part, the actors get very little help from the script. Megan Cavanagh ("A League of Their Own") does her best to make her Broomhilde role funny, but it's her facial expressions that come closest, not Brooks' gags (like her sleeping with her broom). Amy Yasbeck is pretty straightforward as Maid Marian, even when her chastity belt gets a going over by a jackhammer operated by one of the bad guys. And Tracey Ullman seems wasted as a soothsayer named Latrine. When Brooks' regular Dick Van Patten walks by in his Abbot's garb and a peasant shouts, doing his best Lou Costello imitation, "Hey AB-BU . . UHT!" and his line is simply "I hate that guy," you know he's also wasted. And not in a fun, '60s kind of way.
"Robin Hood: Men in Tights" is rated PG-13 for off-color humor. It should have been rated PG-13 for off-target humor.
The picture quality is thankfully better than "High Anxiety," which also hit the streets on individual Blu-ray this past Tuesday along with "History of the World Part I." The colors are rich and fully saturated, and the level of detail and overall surface of the film is much more polished. "High Anxiety" was full of noise and snow, but "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" has a nice, semi-glossy look to it. There's still a slight layer of film grain, but the rich colors and superb 3D effect makes this Blu-ray a big improvement over the DVD. "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" comes to 50-gig dual-layer Blu-ray disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer at 28 MBPS, and there are only a few instances where I caught flaws or sensed a certain softness. Otherwise it was a clear and vibrant picture, presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The soundtrack is even better. Fox went with what's fast become an industry standard: An English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that really fills the room nicely and distributes sounds logically across the sound field. It's a rich and fairly dynamic audio that really earns its keep during the special effects and musical numbers. Dialogue is nicely prioritized, too, so that no lines get lost . . . though there are a few where you certainly wouldn't have minded. Additional audio options are English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital Surround and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
Some decent extras here. Brooks offers a commentary justifying the film, and there's a new featurette in HD, "Funny Men in Tights: Three Generations of Comedy" that's worth a look. Then there's an HBO Special, "'Robin Hood: Men in Tights'-The Legend Had It Coming'" that's also entertaining.
"Robin Hood: Men in Tights" is a film that should have been funnier. But the script turns out to be a bigger villain than the Sheriff of Rottingham. There are more wasted opportunities here than there are "men in tights." If you ask me, Brooks should have stopped with "When Things Were Rotten," his 1975 Men of Sherwood TV parody.