Friday, May 21, 2010

Crowe and Scott get serious with 'Robin Hood'

“Robin Hood” is an evergreen story as sturdy as the trees that fill the forests of Nottingham. Going back to the silent era, the swashbuckling philanthropist has been played by the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Sean Connery and Kevin Costner. Now, under the direction of frequent collaborator Ridley Scott, it is Russell Crowe's turn.

Those expecting to see new versions of familiar scenes such as the archery contest and Robin's bridge battle with foe-turned-friend Little John will be disappointed. This is what in the comic book world would be called an origin story. The film is very much Ridley Scott presents “Robin Hood” in terms of the more brooding, somber tone of the film. Many audience members and critics are comparing this “Robin Hood” to Scott's “Gladiator.”

While Crowe seems to be playing Robin more or less the same way he played Maximus in "Gladiator," this new “Robin Hood” is closer in spirit to Scott's lesser seen “Kingdom of Heaven.” In fact, given that film was set during the Crusades, this could be seen almost as a sequel of sorts.

Those expecting the lighthearted antics of the merry men and swaggering heroics of Robin may be turned off by the switch in tone. There is action to be sure, but it is mostly contained to the beginning and end of the film and is on the scale of the epic battle scenes Scott has become known for in these sorts of films.

There is only one example of Robin and his men robbing from the rich to give to the poor and it is a welcome bit of familiarity. It would be nice if the film were looser and more rambunctious, but it is clear that Scott wanted to show an origin that was more serious. This is not to say this take on the early years of Robin doesn't work given the right expectations.

Scott's film, in terms of its revisionist tact, is similar to 2004's “King Arthur” which also attempted to give a mythic character a more realistic historical context. The difference being that Arthur had at least same basis on a real person, where Robin Hood truly is a man of legend.

In a way, this frees screenwriter Brian Helgeland to shape Robin anyway he wants as long as we have the backdrop of the Crusades that is associated with the character. Typical, Robin remains in England fighting for the poor and defending the good name of King Richard the Lionheart (played here by Danny Huston), but as this film opens Robin is a soldier returning from the Crusades and he is none too fond of Richard's choices as a leader.

Maid Marion, or in this case widow Marion, comes into the picture through a series of circumstances that has Robin posing as her late husband, Sir Robert Loxley, to prevent her lands from being seized by the government should the ailing Sir Walter Loxley (a delightful and warm Max Von Sydow) die.

In an ideal bit of casting, Marion is played by Cate Blanchett who brings the same sort of fiery independence and spunk that she did to her version of Queen Elizabeth in the two “Elizabeth” films. The device of having Robin and Marion posing as a married couple is a clever variation on their barbed courtship. The banter between Robin and Marion provide some of the film's few moments of levity.

Although never referred to as such, several of the merry men are present and also provide some of the few lighter moments of the film. Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes and Mark Addy as Little John, Will Scarlet and Friar Tuck fill the iconic rolls well and with good cheer. They help hint to the Robin legend we all know so well.

Although Prince John (Oscar Isaac) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen) are featured, the real villain of the piece is Godfrey (Mark Strong), a traitor who is working with the French in planning an invasion. Strong, who has appeared most recently in “Sherlock Holmes” and “Kick Ass” has become the go-to guy for this sort of villainy. It is typecasting to be sure, but the man gets the job done.

The film ends with a title card proclaiming the legend begins. If this is a teasing a new series of “Robin Hood” movies then I am in. Scott has done a good job establishing the characters and Crowe and Blanchett are perfectly suited for the role. A lighter touch would be nice next time around though.

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