The gulf that exists between 1980s Mel Brooks (typified by the immensely enjoyable Spaceballs) and 1990s Brooks could be favorably compared to the space between the eastern and western ridges of the Grand Canyon. By the time 1991’s Life Stinks rolled into the multiplex, seizing and coughing up a noxious death rattle, the party that Brooks had been throwing since his debut, 1968’s landmark The Producers, seemed to be completely, irrevocably over. This irrefutable fact, however, didn’t stop Brooks from following Life Stinks with the marginally more tolerable Robin Hood: Men in Tights two years later.
As would be expected, the legend of Robin of Loxley, portrayed here by Cary Elwes, is given the old vaudevillian once-over by Brooks, beginning with a quintet of rapping Merry Men serving as the film’s chorus. Returning to his home of Rottingham, Robin bands together with his blind servant Blinkin (Mark Blankfield), outlaw Ahchoo (Dave Chappelle in his first major screen role), and village leader Little John (Eric Allan Kramer) to found the Merry Men and—all together now—steal from the rich and give to the poor. The aristocracy, led by Prince John (Richard Lewis) and the Sherriff of Rottingham (a miscast Roger Rees), have only Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck), Robin’s betrothed and the obscure object of the Sherriff’s desire, to use as bait for the great charmer. Under the guidance of a hideous witch (Tracey Ullman), the Prince schemes to lure Robin in with an archery contest before marrying Marian off to the Sherriff, allowing the film to further exhaust its dullest gag involving a chastity belt made of reinforced steel.
The Everlast emblem on said chastity belt is an appropriate send-up of movie marketing, but most of the film’s jokes, not to mention the casting of Elwes, are pointed at Michael Curtiz’s Errol Flynn-vehicle The Adventures of Robin Hood and, to a lesser extent, 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, allowing for a bevy of digs on folklore and genre stereotypes. The structure is loosened to Brooksian standards, and the gags are certainly broad, but Men in Tights rarely reaches the sublime lunacy and risqué attitude that characterized Brooks’s best work, namely Blazing Saddles and the aforementioned Producers. Brooks, who wrote the script with Evan Chandler and J.D. Shapiro, focuses on physical humor, but the cast, many of whom are known as straight men, are rarely able to meet these challenges. One has to wonder what might have happened if Brooks had taken Shapiro’s rumored suggestion to cast a not-yet-famous Jim Carrey in the role of the Sherriff.
It should be said that this negligible absence of Brooks’s boundary hopping wit and untamed performances doesn’t quite render Men in Tights unwatchable. There’s an appropriate, albeit languid merriment to the proceedings kept alive by a few choice cameos (Dick van Patten, Dom DeLouise, Brooks himself) and a handful of gags that land on their feet. Furthermore, there’s a fascinating, if deeply troubling line that ties the broad farce of Brooks’s late work to the risible scatological potshots that can be found in the recent films of the Wayans brothers, directing diptych Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer and, alas, David Zucker. For the record, Brooks was never as blithely hypocritical nor so baselessly nasty as any of these comedians, if we’re using that term, but looking back at a film as shamefully innocuous as Men in Tights, you wish the legend had half their swagger.
The general dullness of the picture here has less to do with the transfer of the 1.85:1, 1080p/AVC-encoded image than it does with the good-enough lensing courtesy of cinematographer Michael D. O'Shea. The colors and black levels hold up nicely, as do the grain levels, generally speaking. Textures are done justice and there's little evidence of DNR. In contrast, the audio has been both captured and transferred with precise care. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 expertly mixes background sound with beautifully balanced dialogue levels and there's some solid use of LFE in smaller moments. Nothing to show off but better than the film deserves, honestly.
The audio commentary by Mel Brooks is the prize here, but it's barely funnier than the film itself and offers very little insight into the master's methods in humor. A featurette, "Funny Men in Tights," gives some history into where some of the roots of the film's humor came from, but at 13 minutes, it feels a bit pointless, as does the accompanying HBO special on the making of the film.
Released on the eve of the latest, Ridley Scott-helmed take on the legend of Robin Hood, Robin Hood: Men in Tights showcases a comedy legend at his laziest, both creatively and technically.