Friday, May 14, 2010

Robin Hood: Straight as an arrow

Robin Hood (2010) • View trailer for Robin Hood
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for battlefield violence and occasional sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.14.10
Buy DVD: Robin Hood (Single-Disc Unrated Director's Cut) • Buy Blu-Ray: Robin Hood: Unrated Director's Cut (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

Technically, director Ridley Scott's new film should be titled Robin Longstride, because the rugged character played so well by Russell Crowe doesn't become Robin Hood until the final scene.

So no, Brian Helgeland's screenplay  developed from a story by Helgeland, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris  isn't the usual Sherwood Forest romp, with the "merry men" making sport of the Sheriff of Nottingham, while robbing the rich to benefit the poor. This drama purports to reveal what transformed a skilled infantry archer in King Richard the Lionheart's army into a renegade no longer loyal to his king.
Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe, foreground right) chances upon an ambush
of British soldiers by French mercenaries, an intolerable situation that will
prompt him and his men -- from left, Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle), Little John
(Kevin Durand) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) -- to lend their able support.
The results of this skirmish will shape Longstride's future.

As such, Helgeland plays fast and loose with both history and established legend, although that's probably splitting hairs; we've little idea what really went down in the 13th century, cell phone cameras not yet having been developed. Most of what modern folks know about Robin Hood derives from films starring the likes of Errol Flynn, Sean Connery and Kevin Costner, along with Richard Greene's extremely popular mid-1950s TV series.

Our only concern is whether Scott, Helgeland and Crowe deliver a suitably involving drama. They succeed, and quite admirably.

Things begin as King Richard (Danny Huston, one of few badly cast players in this film) and his troops, taking the long way home after their less than glorious behavior during the Third Crusade, lay siege to one final castle in despised France. They win the skirmish but lose everything else: King Richard is killed in battle.

Meanwhile, back in London, Richard's younger brother, John (Oscar Isaac) has upset his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins), by abandoning his British wife in favor of a French crumpet (Lea Seydoux, as Isabella of Angoulme). Worse yet, John has placed his trust in the duplicitous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong, always a marvelous villain), who secretly plots with France's King Philip to invade England.

The timing is perfect, as the increasingly desperate British people have been taxed almost to starvation, in order to finance the Crusades. Sentiment against the crown is high, and a divided British populace unwilling to unite behind its monarch makes the country a tempting target for King Philip.

Eleanor recognizes this all too well, as does Sir William Marshal (William Hurt), her most trusted adviser. The question, though, is how to win over angered landowners and desperate serfs who've no love for the newly crowned King John: a childish twerp who does himself no good with arrogant temper tantrums and vindictive behavior.

Isaac plays such immaturity quite well; he truly makes John a ruler we love to hate.

For a time, though, Robin and his boon companions  Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes, well remembered from TV's E.R.), Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle) and Little John (Kevin Durand)  are unaware of such doings. Robin is concerned only with fulfilling a promise to a dying man: that he deliver the knight's sword to his estranged father, Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow), who with his daughter-in-law, Marion (Cate Blanchett), owns the principal land, Peper Harow, in Nottingham.

Sir Walter finds the news of his son's death calamitous for many reasons, not the least of which involves British law: If a noblewoman's husband dies before she produces a male heir, the estate reverts back to the crown. Sir Walter thus proposes a bold deception: that Robin pretend to be Robert Loxley, returned from the wars. With so many years having passed, who's to know?

Well, the vile Sir Godfrey, for one.

The blossoming relationship between Robin and Marion thus begins on a brittle note, since the latter understandably resents being handed off to a total stranger, no matter how honorable  and ruggedly handsome  he might be. The always feisty Blanchett gives as good as she gets from Crowe's pragmatic Robin; Marion's scornful gaze could turn lesser men into pillars of salt.

The final essential character arrives in Nottingham right around the same time: the genial Friar Tuck (Mark Addy, appropriately jovial), who keeps bees and seems sympathetic to Marion's entreaties that the church share some of 'its' precious grain with the starving people who provided it in the first place.

The various political machinations quite cleverly suggest how a "forest charter"  providing rights, privileges and protection for the common man against the aristocracy  might have evolved into the great document eventually known as the Magna Carta, which was signed at Runnymede in 1215.

A bit of the dialogue gets too precious; it's hard not to smile tolerantly when, during a key dramatic moment, Crowe lends his considerable gravity to an observation that "A man's home is his castle."

All this stirring, nation-building angst touches us, though, because Scott and Crowe deliver the same blend of gravitas and battlefield fury that made such a hit of Gladiator.

The women in this story are backed into fascinating and complicated corners, and forced to make unpalatable choices: Marion must feign a relationship with Robin, in order to retain her home and lands; Eleanor must remain patient with a petulant son she despises, in order to preserve the British crown; and Isabella must secretly align herself with Eleanor, is order to safeguard her desire to be a queen ... for more than a few weeks.

The men, alternatively, battle for ideals or power: Robin's desire for personal freedom, Sir Godfrey's ambition to bring down the king. The subtlety of Crowe's performance emerges as Robin struggles to find room for idealism  to acknowledge Marion and her father-in-law's belief that true national unity results only when the citizenry are properly cared for  at a time when fear and desperation have turned such utopian notions into almost impossible goals.

It's hard not to see contemporary, real-world parallels: Replace King John's usurious taxes  and condescending lack of concern for his subjects  with 21st century health care providers and their identical contempt for individual policyholders, and one can't help wishing for a modern Robin Hood who'll bring such corporate thugs to book. Scott and Helgeland have re-shaped this saga in a way that resonates with modern viewers.

Kudos also go to production designer Arthur Max, who has built an impressively realistic 13th century environment. The film's scope is jaw-dropping at times, and never better than when Robin and his men ride a ship to London via a Thames laden on both sides with castles and countless other period trappings.

But I sense impatience from the testosterone junkies who've read this far. The heck with back-stabbing intrigue and mating rituals between Robin and Marion; does this film deliver action scenes on par with the spectacular coliseum skirmishes in Gladiator?

Well ... not quite. But Scott opens his film with a suitably violent castle siege, and Robin gets several opportunities to demonstrate his archery skill. (One may wonder if such talent ever actually existed. One won't waste much time wondering, though, 'cause it looks so cool.) And Scott builds his film to a grand and glorious climax involving Robin, Sir Godfrey, King John, King Philip and legions of troops on both sides: something of a 13th century response to Steven Spielberg's memorable beach landing in Saving Private Ryan, with a touch of 300.

This is a serious, compelling re-telling of Robin Hood: one that I hope will forever banish the dueling 1991 pop-culture efforts by Costner and Patrick Bergen (although one does wish that the oddly subdued Matthew MacFadyen's Sheriff of Nottingham, in this film, had a bit more of the snarky panache that Alan Rickman delivered in Costner's film).

If Scott and Crowe intended to pay proper respect to the Robin Hood myth, they've certainly succeeded. Along the way, they've also delivered a ripping good action flick.

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