Merry men with muscle: Russell Crowe’s brawny ‘Robin Hood’ attacks with more punch than panache
The best part about origin stories, at least where Hollywood is concerned, is that you get to make stuff up. As long as you end with something along the lines of “And that’s how Captain Kirk met Mr. Spock,’’ you’re free to invent characters and events, to bring a rusty old franchise up to date with fresh dialogue, attitude, and effects.
In the case of “Robin Hood,’’ that final title card reads “And so the legend begins,’’ and it comes after a massive seaside battle sequence that suggests director Ridley Scott is trying to remake “Braveheart’’ by way of “Saving Private Ryan.’’ (Did you know they had World War II-style landing transports in 12th-century England? Me neither.) As climaxes go, it’s a serious misstep: an epic muddle that forgets why we came here in the first place.
Luckily, the rest of the movie remembers. This “Robin Hood’’ is mostly a smart, muscular entertainment; it doesn’t breathe new life into a genre as did “Gladiator,’’ Scott’s first pairing with Russell Crowe, but it’s a brawny reimagining of a beloved old myth, a period popcorn movie turned out with professionalism and gusto. And in Crowe it has a Robin who may lack the light ness of Errol Flynn (still the greatest Hood of them all) but who possesses a presence and authority to make you forget all about Kevin Costner.
That said, this ain’t your grandma’s Nottingham. For one thing, there are those creepy feral children in rawhide masks skulking through Sherwood Forest, orphans abandoned by a regime obsessed with conquest and money. Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) is returning home from 10 years at the Crusades — pausing to pillage a castle or two, just for the hell of it — and Prince John (Oscar Isaac), a spoiled playboy with severe sibling-rivalry issues, is barely holding down the throne. The King of France (Jonathan Zaccai) is plotting invasion, the northern barons are in revolt, the king’s chancellor (William Hurt) is in despair, and the aged Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins) only wishes she could give her son the prince a good spanking.
Robin Longstride (Crowe) is first glimpsed as an archer in the king’s service, weary of war and holding a few seditious ideas about democracy in his big, round head. As the army nears England, disaster strikes, and Robin lights out with a merrie entourage that includes hulking Little John (Kevin Durand), boisterous Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), and Allen A’Dayle (Alan Doyle), who plays a mean lute. What little comedy “Robin Hood’’ has comes from these three, and it needs all the help it can get.
The chief villain is Godfrey, a black-clad, bald-headed attack dog of a noble who’s played by Mark Strong (“Kick-Ass’’) with every ounce of Basil Rathbone he can summon up, even if he looks more like Stanley Tucci’s scary brother. Working for both Prince John and the French, Godfrey chases Robin north to Nottingham, where our hero finds himself forced to pretend he’s the returned knight Robert of Loxley to keep the taxman from the door. Old Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow, funny, frail, and moving) thinks this is a splendid idea, but the real Robert’s widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett), is horrified. Robin and Marion — what chance do you think these two kids will have?
Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland manage to sort out this rugby scrum with surprising finesse. The movie underutilizes Matthew Macfadyen’s Sheriff of Nottingham but introduces a runty, resourceful Friar Tuck (Mark Addy), who keeps beehives that sit there like Chekhov’s gun, waiting to go off. But “Robin Hood’’ recycles “Gladiator’’ more than it should — Isaac’s John is just a brattier version of Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus — and it makes a fine hash of British history and geography, setting the Magna Carta on fire in one scene and suggesting that everywhere in England is a 15-minute horse ride from everywhere else.
Right; if Errol Flynn’s Robin didn’t care about history, neither should we. But that points out what’s missing from Scott’s version: the derring-do, the panache, the joy in yanking the beards of the oppressors that was conveyed by Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks and even Sean Connery in the autumnal “Robin and Marian.’’ “Robin Hood’’ is a broad and lumbering affair, made of heavy iron and flecked with mud and blood. Crowe shoulders the movie’s weight with the stolid charisma we’ve come to expect from him, and he gets us to believe Robin’s hard-won goodness. But would it kill him to smile?
Blanchett’s Marion isn’t exactly a party girl, either (that duty falls to Léa Seydoux as John’s hot little consort, Isabella of France). You welcome the actress’s instinctive elegance, though, and admire Marion’s toughness in the face of everything the 12th century can throw at her. Yet the script’s ideas about women at times feel jarringly 21st century. Eleanor of Aquitaine trying to run the country through her sons is one thing; the noble Marion strapping on chainmail to fight the French invaders with the rest of the boys quite another.
By that final battle, “Robin Hood’’ has become as top-heavy as an overloaded siege wagon. At least the earlier action scenes are fleet and exciting, with Scott using every trick in his well-appointed arsenal to put us in the midst of the frays. And thank goodness the director resisted studio pressure to convert the film to 3-D, since a couple of POV arrow flights are convincing enough in two dimensions.
That seriousness of purpose ultimately keeps “Robin Hood’’ earthbound, though. In avoiding gimmickry, Scott and company have forgotten the greater gimmick at the heart of this folktale: the ease and humor that’s as crucial a part of Robin’s rebellion against the crown as his arrows. The man was a primitive superhero. The movie turns him back into a man. You decide if that’s what you want. For all this version does grimly right, I’m sticking with Flynn.