Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #10 Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
Welcome to the tenth entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0, the column where patrons who make a one time one hundred dollar donation get to choose a film for me to watch and then write about. So far readers/patrons have overwhelmingly chosen movies I was already curious about, albeit generally in a morbid fashion, and was already contemplating covering.
That’s certainly true of Mel Brooks’ 1993 parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which I somehow hadn’t already seen for some reason possibly related to the fact that it’s supposed to be terrible. But when has that ever stopped me before? I'm a motherfucking Juggalo, after all.
Yes, Mel Brooks is one of those icons, like John Waters, who single-handedly make the world a better, more fun and more joyful place to be. John Waters and Mel Brooks are, of course, legendary, influential film icons but for the past fifteen years or so their primary occupation has been being, respectively, John Waters and Mel Brooks.
These elder statesman of shock and subversion are national treasures. They are utter delights. Their incandescent personalities light up any podcast or television show they appear on. They can travel the country, or sell out Broadway doing one-man shows where they delight adoring audiences with stories from their remarkable lives and careers and mega-watt personalities.
Yes, it sure seems like everybody loves John Waters and Mel Brooks, deservedly so, and will do anything, but anything, to express that love and appreciation, with the notable exception of giving either man money to write and direct another movie. It’s not unlike the twilight of Sam Fuller’s career, where filmmakers who grew up worshiping him expressed their love for his legacy by casting him in weird bit parts in their movies instead of helping make his own movies, something he has historically been pretty goddamn good at.
Waters hasn’t directed a film since 2004’s A Dirty Shame while it’s been twenty three years since Brooks’ last cinematic directorial credit, 1995’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
Dracula: Dead and Loving It was an out and out flop, as opposed to Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which underperformed at the box office, but did quite well in the low-stakes, low-expectations, low-investment world of home video, where the question is less, “Why see this movie?” than “Eh, why not see this?” and the film could realize its ultimate destiny as a mildly risqué babysitter for bored children from one of the most dependable names in comedy, albeit at his least dependable.
If you want to know why Mel Brooks’ career as a director ended not long after Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a good indication can be provided by an expository rap number that occurs early in the film and was written by the then-sixty-seven year old veteran of the Golden Age of television and goes exactly like this:
Yo! Check it out
Prince John and the Sheriff
They was running the show
Raising the taxes
'Cause they needed the dough
A reign of terror
Took over the land
They was shaking down the people
Just to beat the band
I said Hey!
I said Hey!
Hey nonny nonny and a ho ho ho
The people were unhappy
Morale was low
They had no place to turn to
There was nowhere to go
They needed a hero
But no one could be found
'Cause Robin Hood was out of town
I said Hey!
I said Hey!
I said Hey!
Hey nonny nonny and a ho ho ho
He was put into the slammer
By his Arab foe
And in a little while
He would be no more
By the time he embarrassed himself, his cast, and everyone watching with the “Sherwood Forest Rap”, Brooks was an O.G of movie-themed comedy novelty rap music, having blessed his audience with both 1981’s “It’s Good to be the King Rap” and 1984’s “To Be or Not to Be (The Hitler Rap).”
Among his myriad other distinctions, Mel Brooks probably released one of the first rap singles with “It’s Good to be the King” but he was an elderly Jewish man whose career went back to Your Show of Shows so while he clearly liked rap music, his conception of the genre is frozen forever in the era of Run DMC/Fat Boys/“To Be or Not to Be (The Hitler Rap).”
Like a lot of old white people, rap for Brooks is largely a matter of tough-looking black guys with sunglasses on rhyming awkwardly and breathing heavily while crossing their arms theatrically and occasionally shouting things like “Hey!” and “Yeah!”
This deeply embarrassing, seemingly endless sequence adequately conveys basic plot information and exposition but it tells us a whole lot more as well, none of it positive. This sequence illustrates indelibly that the comedy legend is off his game, and cannot delineate between good, timely gags and clumsy stabs at timeliness and relevance.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights is never weaker than when it’s trying to be timely. It’s full of gags that don’t just date the movie indelibly as a product of 1993 but rather of specific months. The clumsy screenplay, co-written by Brooks and Evan Chandler, a dentist best known for accusing Michael Jackson of molesting his son, and J.D Shapiro, who would go on to co-write the screenplay for Battlefield Earth, something he subsequently apologized for, never stops winking at the audience with a flurry of contemporary references for pop ephemera so fleeting that they must have felt horribly dated by the time the film hit theaters.
Remember the Tomahawk Chop, which Atlanta Braves fans participated in to show their support for their favorite baseball team and callous indifference about racism? Robin Hood: Men in Tights sure does, along with the woofing of Arsenio Hall’s studio audience, the Patriot missile and the Rodney King beating. Men in Tights is lousy with anachronistic nods to then-current pop culture phenomena and also just plain lousy. In the film’s most instantly dated gag, Dave Chappelle’s character insists on pumping up his sneakers before a fight scene.
An ideally cast Cary Elwes slides smoothly into the title role of Robin Hood, who is introduced in a Moorish prison after fighting in the Crusades. Upon gaining his freedom, Robin Hood returns to his native England, where he is chagrined to discover that evil Prince John (Richard Lewis) has taken over with the help of the sinister, Spoonerism-spouting Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees).
In his home of Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood encounters Ahchoo (Dave Chappelle, in his film debut), the son of his friend Asneeze (Isaac Hayes) being viciously beaten by the L.A.P.D cops of the era in a winking reference to the Rodney King beatings that, needless to say, has not aged well.
Brooks once spoke up to his audience. He respected them, their intelligence and frame of reference. By Men in Tights, however, he felt the need to spell everything out in ways that both insult the audience and kill jokes by over-explaining them.
At the end of the film, for example, Ahchoo is promoted to Sheriff of Rottingham. In case anyone misses the self-homage, when the shocked onlookers shout, in unison, “A black sheriff!?!” Ahchoo looks into the camera, makes a goofy face and quips, “Why not? It worked in Blazing Saddles!”
That is true. But a whole lot of things worked spectacularly well in Blazing Saddles, and felt fresh and novel and subversive then but come off as tired, desperate and a little sad here. It’s often and obnoxiously been said that a movie like Blazing Saddles could never get made today because it’s so outrageous, provocative and irreverent about race, sex and money.
There are a number of sequences in Robin Hood: Men in Tights that shouldn’t make it into any movie, then or now, like a sadly inevitable production number where the titular men in tights ensure us in flamboyant song and dance that while their love of tights and crooning might make them seem like “sissies” or “pansies” they’re not actually gay. I’m not sure the uninspired gay panic joke of the film’s title really needed to be paid off so clumsily and literally, if at all, but Men in Tights is fiercely devoted to belaboring the obvious as a core comic principle.
The gay panic extends even further. When a typically anachronistic, incongruous Rabbi played by Mel Brooks (whom I would accuse of slumming if this weren’t his own fucking movie) first encounters Robin Hood and his suspiciously merry men, he inquires, “Faygelah?” after the derogatory Yiddish phrase for homosexuals. Brooks loved the line so much he gave it to himself and repeats it in the end credits over his name so that you know EXACTLY who is lovingly using this Yiddish homophobic slur.
Brooks is not the only familiar face embarrassing themselves here. For No Respect January, I wrote about a late-period direct-to-video Rodney Dangerfield/Kevin MacDonald/Dom DeLuise vehicle called The Godson built around DeLuise’s adequate impersonation of Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
At the time I marveled that someone thought a has-been character actor doing an impersonation from a twenty-six year old film that had already been parodied as much as any other film or performance in existence, with the possible exception of Citizen Kane and Patton was somehow enough to build an entire movie on.
So you can imagine my delight to see DeLuise pop up here doing the exact same impersonation of Marlon Brando in The Godfather he did in The Godson as Don Giovanni, a kookily anachronistic crime boss hired by the Sheriff of Rottingham to kill Robin Hood at an archery contest.
On a more contemporary but equally embarrassing note, an exceedingly young Chappelle references a more recent pop culture event when he slips into the enraged-preacher cadences of Malcolm X (of biopic and baseball hat fame) to insist that “We didn’t land on Sherwood Forest. Sherwood Forest landed on us!”
Like the schlock cinema of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg, Robin Hood: Men in Tights trades extensively in pop culture reference-as-punchline. After all, when you have comic gold like Robin Hood delivering part of a Winston Churchill speech like, hundreds of years before Churchill was even born, why bother tainting the purity of that nod by making a joke out of it?
Robin Hood: Men in Tights is suspiciously joke-light. The movie will swing softly, miss completely, then a minute or two later attempt a similarly mild gag (like the Prince’s accountant being “H&R Blockhead”) and then watch it quietly fail as well. It’s a veritable slow-moving parade of groan-worthy dad jokes, like Prince John being annoyed by a mime and ordering his death before realizing that, “a mime is a terrible thing to waste.”
To damn them with very faint praise, Elwes and Chappelle are easily the best part of the film. There’s a lightness and a self-mocking quality to Elwes’ performance that’s perfect for the role and the film, and has the added advantage of separating Elwes from the awfulness of his material by conveying at every turn that the actor knows damn well that he’s in a god-awful movie, yet is intent on having fun with it all the same. Chappelle, meanwhile, isn’t really given anything to do other than be the film’s token black character, but even at this early stage his charisma and talent were evident.
Brooks’ masterpiece are rooted in a deep love and appreciation for cinema, particularly classic cinema. Robin Hood: Men in Tights, however feels unmistakably like television. Lewis’ second-rate Woody Allenisms feel particularly threadbare in this context. Even the film’s two most auspicious cast members—Chappelle and Patrick Stewart in the Sean Connery superstar cameo slot—are best known for their television work.
Brooks was once hip. He was once a trendsetter. He was ahead of his time with zeitgeist-capturing classics like The Producers and Blazing Saddles. By 1993, however, he was reduced to playing catch-up and badly imitating both himself in his glory years and the works of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, who would turn Leslie Nielsen the star of his next, and possibly final film, Dracula: Dead and Loving It into an unlikely slapstick superstar.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights isn’t audacious enough to be terrible. It’s exceedingly minor, a half-hearted shrug of a movie whose jokes are mild, predictable and, most disastrously, wholly unfunny. The datedness, labored fourth wall-breaking and clunky pop culture references are forgivable: the complete dearth of laughs, alas, is not.
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