Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Robin Hood

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Matthew Macfadyen, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, Kevin Durand, Mark Addy, William Hurt, Danny Huston, Max Von Sydow, Scott Grimes
Running Time: 140 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Originally, Ridley Scott's Robin Hood was to be released under the title, Nottingham. That would have been a much better choice, one that at least doesn't conjure up early '90's images of Kevin Costner in the role and a certain Bryan Adams theme song. I wonder if they went for the safer, more obvious title because they feared audiences wouldn't know what it was. The only reason I'm mentioning this is because Scott is burdened with the incredibly thankless task of putting a fresh spin on a tale that's that's been told a hundred times over and can really only be told one way. At least a new title could have created the illusion that things might be different this time and a new approach would be taken. It would be something, because let's face it, any filmmaker will always be grasping at straws with a character as limited as Robin Hood. He isn't exactly deep or multi-dimensional, nor does his legend boast rich narrative possibilities that can go in a million different directions. Other than completely modernizing the story and setting it in the present day you're handcuffed with what you've got. Scott goes the only route he can, the safest and most predictable, and while this qualifies only as average entertainment at best, it's still better than it should be given the circumstances. While he falls short in his obvious attempt to duplicate adventure epics like Braveheart and his own Gladiator, I'll give him credit for perfect casting and some great battle scenes. It's mainly the overly familiar and somewhat uninvolving "untold" story that can't keep pace.

If forced to classify it, this version of Robin Hood could be considered a prequel of sorts, or more accurately, an origin story.  When King Richard (Danny Huston) is killed in a siege, his common archer, Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) must return to London to inform the Royal Family of the king's death and witness the coronation of the deceased's younger brother, Prince John (Oscar Isaac). The evil, self-absorbed John wastes no time abusing the throne with unfair tax demands and appointment of Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong) as the collector, though he's secretly an agent of the French King using his new position to stir up a Civil War in England.  Upon arriving in Nottingham, Robin assumes the identity of slain knight Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), a knight who's dying request was that he deliver a sword to his blind, aging father, Sir Walter (Max Von Sydow). Loxley's also left behind a widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett), who's slow to warm up to her husband's replacement, but of course we know those cold feelings toward Robin won't last long. In fact, we already know a lot of things and that's the problem. The few details we didn't know could have just assumed, not shown to us in a prequel. From a literal standpoint, this portion is "untold," but it's also unnecessary, doing little to add to the legend of Robin Hood or Nottingham, or cause us to re-think our previous perception of the character. We do get some mileage seeing familiar faces in a slightly different capacity like a pre-"Maid" ass-kicking Marion, the somewhat goofy Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen) before he becomes a major villain, Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) as a beekeeper and Robin's "Merry Men," Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and Alan A'Dale (Alan Doyle). But most of the thrills come from the battle scenes which, aside from ripping off Braveheart, are exciting and well choreographed, and the noticeably authentic set, costume and art design. But that should almost be the minimum requirement for a period adventure like this anyway, particularly one helmed by a filmmaker as experienced as Scott.

With both actors pushing past the forty year mark I'm sure many will complain that Crowe and Blanchett are "too old" for these roles. That's nonsense and I commend Scott for going against the grain by casting mature, experienced performers instead of someone like a Robert Pattinson or a Kiera Knightley in a misguided attempt to go younger, which could have easily tarnished the entire film. I'd imagine the pressure from the studio to do that was strong considering this is supposed to be a prequel, but such an approach would have been inappropriate for the material, and this wasn't ever going to reel in the younger crowd anyway. Prequel or not, Robin and Marion should be a man and woman not a boy and a girl and the versions we get here actually come closer their authentic origins in how they look and behave. As played by Russell Crowe, Robin is more of an action hero than he was in the past which I don't take issue with since there aren't a whole lot of other things the character could be at this point that we haven't seen already. But what's most surprising is how likable, funny and relaxed Crowe seems a role that you'd expect to be a Maximus retread and regardless of the quality of the material, he's continues to be an actor who's never given less than a top tier performance in anything. A true highlight is his witty banter and chemistry with Blanchett, who's one of the few actresses (other than maybe Jolie) capable of bringing the necessary elegance and grace to Marion, while at the same time also being believable as a feisty, strong-willed warrior ready to suit up for battle (as she does in the climactic showdown). The long overdue modernization of a character depicted in previous incarnations as merely a damsel in distress is one of the smartest details in the script by Brian Helgeland, who interestingly enough previously wrote and directed A Knight's Tale. Also helping is the presence of not just one, but two formidable villains with Oscar Isaac making an especially slimy and detestable King John.

With barely a 15 minute difference between the theatrical and unrated cut, I viewed the theatrical one and it's hard to regret that decision since a running time of just over two hours feels right whereas two and a half would seem to be unnecessarily pushing it. While it's unlikely an extra scene or two would have made the story feel any fresher or more inspired, I'd almost be curious enough to find out. The film works best as a teaching tool for directors on how to cast properly since this could have easily turned into a total disaster without talents like Crowe and Blanchett carrying it. It was an honest attempt by Scott who's onto something here since there is a joy in watching an old fashioned adventure epic that relies on story and character rather than distracting computer generated effects. I just wish the story were better and I actually cared what happened to the characters. It's a closer call than I expected and judging by the conclusion a sequel almost seems inevitable, or would have been had this made more money and anyone liked it. Maybe they can call that Nottingham.

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