Mel Brooks Monday: Robin Hood: Men in Tights

Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a disappointment not because it is a bad movie, but because, after a surprise like Life Stinks, it seemed like Mel Brooks had more up his sleeve than another obvious spoof. But, if we have to settle for Brooks’ take on the Robin Hood legend, it helps that it’s a ton of fun.

Of all Brooks’ films, I’d say Robin Hood is the one most often quoted and referenced by people from my generation. I had a group of friends in high school who could perform the “Men in Tights” musical number from memory. Indeed, much of the film seems to be the filmmaker’s attempt to make himself relevant to a new generation of fans. This approach both helps the film and hurts it.

Like Spaceballs, Robin Hood is less interested in telling the classic story than it is in introducing us to some fun new twists on the characters we know using the original’s framework. Robin Hood (Cary Elwes, of Princess Bride fame), returns to England from the Crusades to find his family’s land under subjugation and heavy taxation by Prince John (a very funny Richard Lewis) and the Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees). Robin hopes to overthrow the prince with the help of his friends, including Little John (Eric Allan Kramer), blind servant Blinkin (Mark Blankfield) and newcomer Ahchoo (a young Dave Chappelle). Along the way he hopes to win the heart of Maid Marion (Amy Yasbeck).

The film is indeed “hip,” if any Brooks film could be called that. I dig the casual, laid back style of the flick, from rapping black minstrels to the presence of the ever-popular (and every funny) Chappelle. As a black man in a white man’s world, Atchoo doesn’t come close to the likes of Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles, but Chappelle still rises far above his underwritten role.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights overcomes its tired jokes with great production design and spot-on performances.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights overcomes its tired jokes with great production design and spot-on performances.

The same could be said for the rest of the cast. These very funny performers try their best with the material, but the script is almost constantly done in by the obvious humor. People who haven’t seen another Brooks film may find the jokes funny, but a veteran like myself can’t help but roll my eyes at the plethora of recycled material. I’d say about 80 percent of the jokes here are lifted wholesale from one of the director’s other comedies. There’s the obvious penis humor, the fourth-wall camera gags and the villain who keeps saying the wrong thing, and some lines are straight up copied (“It’s good to be the king,” for example). When I’m hearing these jokes for the third or fourth time in a Brooks movie, I can’t help but be distracted by the laziness of it all.

Thankfully, the visual gags fare much better. A fight on a bridge involving sticks draws favorable comparisons to my favorite scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and a gag involving a sword with a, shall we say, mind of its own is my favorite moment in the whole movie. I also got a big kick out of Maid Marion’s chastity belt (“It’s an Everlast”).

The film gains major ground by being so amiably goofy and charming. It’s all very silly, but, unlike Spaceballs, the pacing doesn’t feel slack. Even in its more annoying moments, you can tell everyone making it was having a ton of fun. It’s kind of a musical, and the songs are all pretty memorable (one even gets a legitimate pop treatment during the end credits, a fact I found uproarious, though I’m not sure why).

It’s also, on the whole, a pretty good adaptation of its source material. Brooks didn’t skimp on the swashbuckling; there are some great sword fights here, and they’re a blast. The choreography of the musical numbers is also very good; I’m glad there was so much effort put into the production design, costume and makeup, because it really shows. The grotesque hag Latrine, played by Tracy Ullman, models this in one of the film’s funniest performances.

Although the supporting cast is great (I particularly like Richard Lewis’ Prince John), the film really does belong to Elwes’ Robin Hood. This is the kind of role he was born to play; he’s got just the right amount of cocksure swagger and charm, along with the fighting skills, to make the famous character come alive in a fresh way. It may be similar to his performance in Princess Bride, but that doesn’t make it any less excellent.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a good time. It’s nothing that spectacular, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be. The film’s lazier elements are balanced out by a charming tone and laid back pacing. If you’re watching TV’s Galavant and enjoying it, you’re sure to like the sublime silliness on display here.