|UNIVERSAL PICTURES, KERRY BROWN |
Russell Crowe is shown in a scene from "Robin Hood."
The Robin Hood story has been told over and over again by Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, Disney, Kevin Costner, Mel Brooks and too many more to mention. So the best thing about Ridley Scott's new film, cleverly titled "Robin Hood," is that it does not cover the same ground as those that have come before it.
Scott's "Robin Hood" serves as a sort of prequel to the well-known legend. Instead of building the story around stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, screenwriter Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential," "A Knight's Tale") focuses on how the English folk hero, known here as Robin Longstride, achieved his outlaw status. As you would expect in a Ridley Scott historical epic, that occurs only after much medieval warfare, swordplay and archery.
Ostensibly, the idea is to focus on the man behind the legend. But since there is no definitive history of the man and some question whether he ever existed at all, the movie really is just another Hollywood concoction.
Not that there's anything wrong with that—not when it's made with such skill as this, at least.
We pick up the action at the turn of the 12th century. Robin (Russell Crowe, teaming with Scott for the fifth time), a commoner, is a soldier in the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), which is fighting its way slowly through France on its way home from a decade-long crusade.
King Richard's death in battle has far-reaching effects. It allows Robin and his pals—a fun group consisting of Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle) —to abandon a cause they do not believe in and return to England. The trip home is complicated when Robin promises a dying knight (Douglas Hodge) that he will return his sword to his father, Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), in Nottingham, and ends up assuming the dead man's identity—which includes being married to the Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett).
Richard's demise also elevates his brother, John (Oscar Isaac), to the throne. The English commoners, no fans of Richard, take to their new monarch with even less enthusiasm. John sends his henchman, Godfrey (Mark Strong, following "Sherlock Holmes" and "Kick-Ass" with another fine villainous turn), out to collect taxes the people cannot afford to pay.
Godfrey, though, is on a different mission. He has allied himself with the French and aims to use his brutal tax-collecting techniques to turn the people against King John, creating civil war in England and a prime opportunity for a French invasion.
So how does Robin figure into this? He starts small, making the sure the grain Nottingham needs to survive stays there instead of going to London. Before long, he finds himself as the mouthpiece of the people, demanding from King John "liberty by law" and helping to lead the English in battle against the invading French.
There are many players (the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen), the traditional villain of the Robin Hood story, is here but only in a minor role), spread across an entire country, yet it is a deceptively simple story. That serves the film well, allowing it to focus on the characters rather than get bogged down by political machinations.
Given the Scott-Crowe pairing, it is hard not to think of their Oscar-winning "Gladiator" and dismiss Robin Hood as Maximus in a forest. But that shortchanges what Crowe does as an actor, creating a distinct, original take on an iconic character, and especially Scott as a filmmaker. "Robin Hood" is its own animal, with themes that, though perhaps a little too obvious, resonate today. And I don't know if anyone can better direct the kind of swords-and-horses action on display here.
Greg's Grade: A
(Rated PG-13 for violence including intense sequences of warfare, and some sexual content. 140 minutes.)