Robin Hood: Men in Tights” marks a return to the wild, anarchic scatological comedies that made Mel Brooks a marquee name around the world. It is a film for both his diehard fans and a new generation who know Mad Mel only from legend. Virtually a primer of all the familiar visual and literal jokes in his bag of tricks, the film is a paean to the obvious that is more delight than retread. It should sail through the summer on steady business aimed at the funny bone like no other film in the marketplace.
Brooks’ fascination with the denizens of Sherwood Forest is honest if hard to figure. In 1975 he covered the territory in the television series “When Things Were Rotten.” Here he has managed to mangle the legend so that it essentially resembles his biggest hit, “Blazing Saddles.” Even purists will find it difficult not to doff their hats in much the same way respect was accorded Dr. Frankenstein for his warped creation.
For the somnambulists in the crowd, the tale involves nobleman Robin of Loxley (Cary Elwes), who ventures with King Richard to the Crusades. He escapes and returns to England, where he finds the kingdom in disarray in the hands of Prince John (Richard Lewis) and his evil henchman, renamed here the Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees).
Adopting outlaw ways, Robin enlists the good country folk to join his cause and rid the kingdom of the scourge. He also finds romance with Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck).
Brooks takes considerable liberties with the traditional story. Friar Tuck has been reinvented for Brooks to play as Rabbi Tuckman, and the characters include a black foreign-exchange student and plenty of anachronistic modern references.
The manic ensemble is grounded by Elwes’ virtually straight-faced interpretation of Robin with a glib assuredness that hits the target dead center.
Rather slier is Yasbeck’s Marian, who gets great comic effect from being the girl too good to be true.
The supporting cast features many members of Brooks’ stock company. Best of all are the comic snivelings of Rees’ sheriff and the haggish Latrine as embodied by Tracey Ullman.
Taste, never a factor to be considered seriously in the filmmaker’s work, is appropriately questionable. There is tremendous glee to be derived from the spontaneity of his outrageous antics. It’s blunted only when he steals shamelessly from past successes.
One size of these “Tights” won’t fit all, but Brooks remains a talent whose audience is amazingly elastic.