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Following up any universally-acclaimed and Oscar-winning film with another success is no easy feat, and yet Kevin Costner took that to task after Dances With Wolves earn him a few statues, deciding to retell a story told a hundred times already, hoping to give it a fresh spin, though there’s only so much spin you can give a story that is as set in stone as, well, the legend of Robin Hood is. While the choice to make such a movie is a pretty sure bet, its familiar tale and beloved characters almost certain to lure ticket-buyers to the theater, Prince of Thieves resonated with fans, combining era-defining sensibilities with a classic tale as old as time. It has action, romance, comedy, an uncredited Sean Connery, and, plus, you know, Costner in the early 90s. Gold.
The story, as if you don’t know, follows one Robin of Locksley (Costner), who returns home to England after escaping capture in the Crusades, his absence a time of huge political shifts as King Richard has his army in the Middle East, leaving the power-hungry Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) in control of the lands surrounding Robin’s estate. He’s a cruel man, raising taxes and mistreating the masses while wallowing in his own accumulating wealth and peasant girls at his disposal. That he’s played with snarky melodrama and outrageous zeal by Rickman were, well, more gold. He’s the best reason to watch this movie.
With Robin’s father murdered, Robin goes into hiding and raises a small army of resistance fighters against the Sheriff, raiding officials on the roads through Sherwood forest, stealing money and goods and redistributing them among the people. Rob from the rich and give to the poor, it’s the classic family Robin Hood recipe. This makes him a popular guy among the people and an enemy of Sheriff, but also the love interest of the fair Marion (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), whom the nasty Sheriff himself desires for his own. Hardly torn between the two, she has her own problems but is soon swayed by the flirtations of our hero. He’s got a huge tree fort in the woods, so what … she’s gonna say no? A girl’s can only turn down so many offer until she sees a huge tree fort in the woods.
Anyway, amid all this is a fellow named Sir Guy of Gisborne (sometimes ‘Gisbourne’ in other stories), a character long-embedded in the lore of the the legend though perhaps few know all that well. His allegiances and ties to the characters have been all over the place since his first appearance in the legend but in this film, he is the cousin of the Sheriff, a man of great loyalty who is hired by the ornery despot to kill Hood and as many of his rabble-rousers as he can. It should be an easy job, but as poor Gisborne learns … not so much.
Take for example his first encounter with Hood, when Gisborne and a handful of his men run across him in the countryside where Locksley comes upon them after chasing a boy up a tree. After some words, Robin not only handily defeats the untrained soldiers (some who straight-up run away), but embarrasses Gisborne as well, forcing him to return to the Sheriff with tail between his legs and report to him that Robin has returned and bested him and his brute squad. It doesn’t go over well.
Gisborne is played by Michael Wincott, an actor who now, has been working in film and television for more than three decades, and despite roles in a number of high profile films (he recently turned up uncredited in Scarlet Johansson‘s Ghost in the Shell) is not well known (much like the character), which is too bad, because he is a sensational actor, Juilliard trained, and has worked with some rather famous faces, including Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Tom Cruise, and Robert De Niro to name a few. A powerful presence, with this turn as Gisbourne, he stuck to his classical training, playing it straight–even as others around him hammed it up–giving the production some serious ground, creating a highly-memorably character that is unfortunately only on screen for a short time.
With yellowed-teeth, gruesome scar, and long stringy hair, it is actually his his raspy baritone-esque voice and piercing stare that deliver the goods. So good is he in fact, Wincott utterly out-acts Costner, especially in that aforementioned moment, and to such a degree, it’s almost unsettling, as even Costner’s considerable charms are dimmed under Wincott’s delicious readings. Seriously, watch it again, and you’ll realize that Costner is getting upstaged by a supporting performance that is so above grade, he deserved a film all his own.
In his scenes with Rickman (who you can read more about here), this levels off of course because they are both so well trained as actors. The two are infinitely more fun to watch than arguably anything else in the movie, and after a second viewing, it becomes almost tragic how much a lack of Gisborne hurts, his presence effecting enough to make you want more of him. He’s that good and Wincott impresses with some great drama but also subtle comic timing, which is overshadowed by Rickman’s near career-defining work, but he plays into that very well. Not to spoil Gisborne’s fate, but he disappears too early from the film, the last time we see him he offers a great moment of humility and fear.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a–after a few decades–a much beloved film, that even with a cluster of flaws, still greatly entertains, with lots of swordplay and dark humor. While it’s saved by its performances, with Rickman and Morgan Freeman, playing a Moor fighter indebted to Robin, as standouts, the movie is further filled with some great supporting parts, including Christian Slater as Will Scarlet, Geraldine McEwan as Mortianna, and Mike McShane as Friar Tuck. Though the best in the lot is Wincott, who steals the show every time he’s one screen and makes this remake a fun ride. Gisborne is the second best reason to watch this movie.