Thursday, May 13, 2010

A down and very dirty 'Robin Hood'

Robin prepares to take aim -- but at what?

When it came to Robin Hood, director Ridley Scott most likely found himself in a damned-if-he did and damned-if -he-didn't position.

Had Scott tried to reproduce the swashbuckling bonhomie of Robin Hoods past (most notably Errol Flynn's 1938 version), he surely would have been chastised for indulging audience cravings for nostalgia. Had he gone entirely in the opposite direction, critics would have upbraided Scott for needlessly resisting the current Hollywood temptation to choose "fun" over substance.

I have no idea what went on in the minds of Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland as they prepared to do medieval battle, but they seem to have split the difference between two possible extremes. The 2010 edition of Robin Hood is drearily authentic in many of its details and less reverential about its main character than it is about the virtues of governments that recognize the liberty and sanctity of every individual. OK, so it's not exactly a profile in courage, but the movie takes a strong stand against tyranny. What? You're going to argue?

An uneasy mixture of intentions makes Robin Hood easy to criticize, but shouldn't take away from the fact that Scott -- again working with Russell Crowe -- uses his considerable skills to serve up sequences that confirm his status as a master of action. And although Robin Hood emerges as a full-blown warrior hero in the Gladiator mode, he's not turned into a medieval version of Indiana Jones.

That's why Scott's edition of Robin Hood probably will fare best with those who are sick of the winking ironies of comic book movies. The major characters -- Will Scarlet, Little John, Friar Tuck and Marion - aren't given trumped up showcases. Aside from Marion and Tuck, they tend to become part of the scenery.

Some of the movie's conceits are interesting. Robin Longstride is a commoner who, through a variety of plot machinations, assumes the identity of Robin Loxley, a knight who was murdered on the way home from the Third Crusade. Marion is Robin Loxley's widow. Prince John indulges his carnality and cruelty, although actor Oscar Isaac doesn't seem entirely up to expressing every ounce of John's villainous excess.

I doubt whether Crowe's performance as Robin will be recognized come Oscar time, but it's in sync with Scott's approach, which involves blending serious drama with simply expressed virtue. Unfortunately, Robin has less personality than Godfrey (Mark Strong), the most menacing of the movie's bad guys. A stone-faced villain, Godfrey colludes with the French. The French pose the biggest threat to a fractured England, a country that can beat back invasion only if the aristocracy unites behind John.

Romance is not the movie's strong suit, but Crowe and Cate Blanchett (as Marion) have some nice moments together, although maybe it's better to say that Blanchett has some nice moments with Crowe. Blanchett's Marion agrees to allow Robin to pose as her husband so that she can hold onto the Loxley estate after her father-in-law (a genial Max von Sydow) dies. Truth be told, the movie perks up considerably when Blanchett and von Sydow arrive.

With its references to the Third Crusade and to real historical figures, Robin Hood sometimes plays like a classy historical drama. Danny Huston has a nice early turn as King Richard. William Hurt portrays stately court adviser William Marshall, and Eileen Atkins appears as Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of Richard and John.

Scott begins with a battle staged in chaotic fashion with a heavy emphasis on grime, mud and boiling oil. Robin is fighting alongside King Richard, who's trying to guide his ragtag army back toward England after its less-than-rousing achievements in the Crusades. Once Richard dies, Robin and his cohorts head for England on their own.

The movie builds toward a climactic battle sequence in which the French attempt to land on British soil, but are repelled on the beach. Hand-to-hand combat follows a hail of arrows. Think sweat and swordplay.

Robin Hood may not have been precisely the right showcase for either Scott or Crowe, but they salvage a small victory from a large-scale production that achieves its most notable success in the trenches. Robin Hood suggests that the shining inspirations of legend often took root in the filthy muck of history. Seldom have so many extras gotten quite so dirty.

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