Friday, June 25, 2010

Film Review: Robin Hood

I'm a sucker for historical epics. In an era where cinematic blockbusters are dominated by the CGI-festooned comic book movies, I prefer a good old-fashioned flick with swordfights, castles, and about a million extras on horseback standing around. As such, I was excited to discover that Ridley Scott was continuing his perennial bromance with Russell Crowe to produce a new version of the Robin Hood story.

You're probably familiar with the central Robin Hood story, even if you've forgotten everything about the classic Errol Flynn version or the less-than-classic Kevin Costner rendition. Robin Hood is an outlaw archer in the Sherwood Forest who steals from the rich and gives to the poor during the reign of the brutal, tax-heavy King John. His love interest, Maid Marian, and his band of Merry Men, including Little John and Friar Tuck, assist him in helping the poor peasants and foiling the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham.

Scott's Robin Hood incorporates nearly all of these elements, but the end result is far different from what we've come to expect. I hesitate to use the phrase "gritty remake" - a phrase too often thrown around these days - but much of this Robin Hood replaces the cartoonish swashbuckling of earlier versions of the legend with a darker, more dour historical epic.

That's the first hurdle that one has to overcome - this Robin Hood is not the Robin Hood we knew as children. Rather than concentrating on Robin's life as an outlaw, this movie instead focuses on how Robin became such a legendary figure - his "origin story," to borrow another trite phrase. Instead of situating Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, the film instead begins with Robin trekking home from the Crusades with Richard the Lion-Hearted. He and his British troops are gaunt, cynical and exhausted after the violence they have seen fighting in the Holy Land.

The dashing antics of the Merry Men are instead replaced with epic medieval battle scenes - a stirring early setpiece in which Richard's men storm a French castle, and an exciting conclusion that involves a French invasion across the English Channel.

To call this version more "historical" is wrong (the movie is as anachronistic as any), but Scott's Robin Hood is certainly more morally ambiguous and politically complex than earlier renditions of the tale. Robin and his companions still have nightmares after having been forced to kill Muslim women and children while fighting for Jerusalem. King Richard is not the benevolent monarch of earlier stories, but instead a tired, conflicted ruler who seems regretful that he drained his country's coffer in such a long and bloody Crusade. The plot is far from the simple rich versus poor narrative we've come to expect - instead, Scott stitches together a convoluted narrative of King John falling prey to a French spy, and a three-sided conflict involving Robin Hood's crew of peasants, King John's oppressive forces, and the invading French army. It's not what w're used to, but once you get past the fact it's a new story, you begin to realize it's not a bad one.

Thus, we only get one of Robin Hood's daring raids against the Rich, and instead we get several battles scenes with a rousing musical score and a couple thousand extras. If you were hoping for the traditional Robin Hood, you might be disappointed (and I believe that's why many critics were), but Ridley Scott pulls off the epic battle very well, and the scenes in Robin Hood feel like he's simply perfecting what he already started in Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven.

Elsewhere, the movie excels in its supporting cast. Oscar Isaac does an amazing job of portraying the petulant, incompetent King John - the vain king that nonetheless must make common cause with Robin Hood. The true villain is Sir Godfrey, a cold, ruthless French spy who is played excellent by Mark Strong. For the royal family, we also get old King Richard, uncertain about his role in history, as well as Eleanor of Aquitaine, a stern woman trying to prevent her son King John from ruining the kingdom. And with the Merry Men, there's a lovable albeit underutilized Friar Tuck, as well as Maid Marian and her aging father.

Strangely enough, in this large and colorful cast of characters, Robin Hood himself is the least appealing. Russell Crowe's performance seems uninspired, and though Englishmen across the island swear their fealty to him, Crowe does not exude the charisma, or even basic leadership, to make this sort of hero worship make sense. In a film where the villains are excellent and the supporting cast is extremely enjoyable to watch, Robin Hood himself is rather dull. Cate Blanchett tries her best to put some life and energy into the Robin/Marian love story, but even that ends up being the least interesting plotline in the film.

Despite the vapidity of the central role, I enjoyed the movie immensely. It's not perfect by any means - aside from the boring protagonist, there's also a strange and historically tenuous subplot concerning the Magna Carta that could have been left out entirely. But as Summer Action Flicks go, I found Robin Hood more well-crafted and intelligent than most. I don't think that it will go down as the Timeless Hollywood Epic that Ridley Scott always seems to be aiming for. But it is an interesting spin on a classic tale. In a franchise that could have just gone through the motions and given us some stupid stunts and a handful of annoyingly glib one-liners, Scott aims to add some historical gravitas to the Robin Hood legacy, and if he doesn't always succeed, I don't think we should blame him for trying. It's certainly better than the Kevin Costner version.