May 20, 2010

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Robin Hood (PG-13)
And, verily doth the spittle and shouted statements about liberty fly in Robin Hood, wherein people of legend possess passable British accents and extras from the renaissance fair reenact the D-Day invasion scenes from Saving Private Ryan.

So, right away, yes, this is much better than that Costner debacle.

Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is no Maximus, no leader of men. He’s just your average working-stiff marksman who is doing the grunt work at the end of English King Richard the Lionheart’s (Danny Huston) poorly thought out crusade and making a little side money with some “find the pea under the cups” gambling. During the plunder of a castle on the way home from crusading, Robin and his friends — Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle) — get the early word on the deadness of the king. They decide to get while the getting’s not clogged with other homeward-bound crusaders and light out for the coast. On the way, however, they run into a murdered contingent of their betters — the king’s men, who were attempting to return the crown to England. But one of them, Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), not quite dead yet, gives them the crown, gives (with his dying breath) Robin a mission to take his sword back to his father, and gives the men a new identity. They dress up in the fancy duds of the dead king’s men and, with Robin calling himself Loxley, sail back to England. They give the crown to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins), who uses it to immediately crown her whiny loser of a son Prince John (Oscar Isaac), and then head off to Loxley’s home in Nottingham to give his father back his sword.

When they get to Nottingham, they find a country overtaxed by the crown and under-sheriffed by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen), who has let the orphans left by crusading men run feral and steal from the villagers. Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett) is trying to keep it all together, but when the church takes its stores of grain, things look grim for the people. With the arrival of Robin, her fortunes turn a bit. Paterfamilias Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow) proposes that Robin pretend to be Robert (it’s been 10 years, who’s to know?) and help Marion run the farm. Marion, at first not so cool with the “pretend this stranger is your husband” plan, decides that it’s better than being run off the estate by tax collectors and is soon impressed with, for example, the way he gets the new, bee-keeping, mead-making Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) to agree to let all of the seed grain bound for York fall off the medieval equivalent of a truck on the way. And thus we get the first hints of Robin of the Hood and his merry men, merrily stealing for the poor.

But even in this far corner of the country, all is not a workers’ paradise. The French, with the help of traitor Godfrey (Mark Strong), are trying to invade and dethrone the weak-seeming John. Weak-seeming and weak-being — he is all about Jonathan Rhys’s Henry VIII performance at his most petulant moments in The Tudors.

In fact, there is so much The Tudors here that we even get northern lords rebelling against the government in London — which was a plot in that show’s third season. One of the rebels, Baron Fitzrobert, is played by Gerard McSorley, who played the rebelling Robert Ask in Tudors. As with that series, this movie gives us an unflattering portrait of the French, who are the invading force in this movie’s big battle scene. They are the marine invaders being beaten back by defenders on the cliffs — all blood and arrows in the water and You Are There cinematography. Only, unlike Saving Private Ryan where the invaders were the heroes and the enemy was on the cliffs, in Robin Hood we’re cheering for the guys fighting for the home turf. This battle is both the liveliest part of the movie and a segment that contains many of its flaws (the lack of chemistry between Crowe and anything that isn’t either a weapon or a group of men being revved up).

This Robin Hood reminded me very much of 2004’s King Arthur starring Clive Owen. It also was a darker approach to the legend with attempted realism and, like this movie, it wasn’t exactly the kind of snapping good action movie you might want from tales of swordplay and bravery and derring-do. Everybody is flawed, acts rashly and wants the simple life but also is forced to take a stand for a brand of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that seems anachronistically modern. It’s a very Hollywood way of not doing Hollywood — this isn’t Errol Flynn you’re watching, the movie seems to say to us. Yeah, but it’s a little too Braveheart to consider itself original.

As with many a thing that can seem campy in the movies but can work on TV, this brand of history retelling works better when the creators have the time to give you the tone and build up the characters. You would need either more or less for all this to work here — less story and liberty talk or more development of a smaller number of characters and more attention to the one story of Robin Hood instead of the story of Robin, English politics, a messed-up royal family and international relations. Which is not to say that this movie is a complete dud. It does give us a more interesting Robin Hood character — interesting in theory if not always in fact. And it gives us a far more interesting Lady Marion — she both has the requisite moxie and is, as would be accurate for the times, hemmed in a bit by social convention. And while all the struggle-of-nations stuff probably weighed down the movie with an unnecessary 40 minutes, it still gave us something more to do than character spot in Sherwood Forest. And for that (and the lack of a nauseating love song), I do bestow upon it a B-.

Rated PG-13 for violence including intense sequences of warfare, and some sexual content. Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, Robin Hood is two hours and 11 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures.