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A conjectural “origins” story about the career birth of England’s legendary people’s outlaw, Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” is neither as good as the director’s personal best period epic, “Gladiator,” nor a match for Hollywood’s most memorable previous accounts of the beneficent bandit of Sherwood Forest (it is, however, superior to the Kevin Costner entry two decades back, which I at the time dubbed “Robin of Wood”). Earthy, rugged and earnestly advanced in quasi-plausible historical terms, this grandly produced picture can be regarded as something of a tangential sequel to Scott’s ambitious “Kingdom of Heaven,” with Richard the Lionheart as the connective thread. After several pictures dedicated to documenting his increasing girth, it’s reassuring to see Russell Crowe back in fighting form, but the villains here chart new territory in one-dimensionality, the essential storyline is bereft of surprise and the picture ends where most Robin Hood tales–sensibly, as it turns out–begin.
In the context of the film’s launch as the opening night attraction at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, it’s amusing that the yarn’s greatest villains are the French, under King Philip II; to counter them, the assorted warring English factions are compelled to unite, a theme with contemporary resonance of its own in the wake of the recent fractious election in the U.K.
With opening titles incorrectly stating that the action commences at the beginning of the 12th century when, in fact, King Richard died in 1199, on the eve of the 13th, the film shows English soldiers in the final stages of retreat from the Third Crusade. Having materialized at the very end of “Kingdom of Heaven,” Richard (a grandly shaggy Danny Huston) lays successful seige to a French castle on his way back to England for the first time in a decade, only to be killed by a (historically correct) arrow through the neck.
With the troops in disarray, a few of the king’s best archers, including Crowe’s Robin Longstride, witness a forest ambush led by Godfrey (Mark Strong, as if portraying a direct ancestor of his perfidious gangster in “Kick-Ass”). At stake, literally if not officially, is the English crown, which Robin scoops up and stealthily spirits across the Channel to return it to Richard’s beleaguered mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins). The spectacle of Robin’s boat proceeding up the Thames estuary on its way to the Tower of London, accompanied by an increasing number of escorts, makes for a fresh and impressive sequence, the pageantry leavened by the fact that Robin is an imposter, masquerading as Sir Robert Loxley, a former-comrade-in-arms whose dying wish was that Robin return his sword to his father in Nottingham.
What Sir Robert failed to mention, however, was that he also had a wife, a feisty lass named Marion (not a Maid this time, thank you very much) who has spent the decade tolerating local louts while tending to her blind, dear and very old dad-in-law, Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow).
As written by Brian Helgeland from a story cooked up by him and the “Kung Fu Panda” team of Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, the film’s first 45 minutes and much thereafter are narrowly devoted to establishing myriad deadly oppositions; this is a world with no shortage of vendettas, grudges and plain old hatreds. John, the arrogant, insecure and youngest of Eleanor’s sons and now the new king, dismisses the longtime royal adviser William Marshall (William Hurt) and is persuaded by the venal Godfrey to soak the already strapped northern barons for everything they’re worth; Godfrey takes it upon himself to eliminate Marshall and Robin, especially after the latter bestows him with an unsightly scar that extends his mouth by a couple of inches; Eleanor loathes the French tart Isabella (Lea Seydoux) who will become John’s queen, and Robin, his memory gradually reawakened to a convulsive childhood trauma, realizes who was responsible for depriving him of his father.
Other than from the occasional roaring fireplace, the only warmth in this cold and distinctly unmerry olde England comes from the bonds that grow, first, between Robin and Sir Walter, who quickly embraces the new arrival as a surrogate son, then between Robin and Cate Blanchett’s Marion, here reconceived as a self-sufficient woman and nascent warrior very much along modern lines. Even though there are no better actors one could imagine for either of these roles, the predictably programmed progress of the relationship prevents even Crowe and Blanchett from doing a whole lot with it; the underplayed romance is presented as a gradual, inevitable thaw rather than a lightning bolt of passion, but while this feels plausible between two wary, fortyish survivors, it’s not very dramatic or emotionally engaging.
One half-hearted, incidental sequence featuring Robin and his three barely identified, much less characterized crusader mates, on a larky escapade dispatching some bad guys in the forest is enough to demonstrate that Scott would scarcely have been the right director to pull off a high-spirited, old-fashioned romp in the style of Michael Curtiz’s and William Keighley’s immortal “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn.
But, the dramatic sobreity and historical consciousness with which the director approaches this new take is knee-capped by the sort of broadstroke villainy and motivational simplicity more suitable for a straightforward audience pleaser of yore. The extreme punishment Godfrey and his crew mete out on ordinary citizens in the latter stretch seem wholly gratuitous and off-puttingly bring the film down to the level of violence for violence’s sake.
Matters pick up a bit thanks to the spectacular logistics of the climactic battle; with Godfrey’s men poised on a Channel beach to welcome the French fleet as it arrives to invade England, Robin, the barons and a dithering King John surprise them on the high cliffs above, from which the archers rain down a torrrent of arrows before mounted troops engage the enemy on the sand and in the water. The history-minded will enjoy the wit of a subsequent scene which is consciously set up to suggest the signing of the Magna Carta.
Still, what we’re left with is a fashionably gritty period drama, conceived by intelligent minds and handsomely decked out, but featuring no beating heart or compelling raison d’etre. The very ending, a sort of cliffhanger followed by the title, “And so the legend begins,” makes you want to see something other than the movie you’ve just seen. The problem is that this “Robin Hood” is unlikely to spawn a sequel, so unless Scott has already filmed a secret follow-up, as Richard Lester did with “The Three Musketeers,” this legend will simply have to be imagined.
A small afterthought: Does Ridley Scott have something against Peter O’Toole? This is the second Scott film in which there is an important role that all but cries out for O’Toole to play it. Richard Harris was okay as Marcus Aurelius in “Gladiator” but there can be little doubt O’Toole would have been sensational. I am second to none in my esteem for Max von Sydow; his name in a cast always increases my desire to see a film. But good as he is here, I still wished I’d been seeing the rascally Irishman as the 84-year-old patriarch who warms up over the course of a long evening with the help of abundant conversation water.
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