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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Robin Hood

Russell Crowe as sensitive outlaw

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Outlaws who spare the innocent in the pursuit of profit are mythologized as heroes, and outlaws from times when the law is bad are honored even more. The archetypal outlaw in the English-speaking world, Robin Hood, might never have existed, but his pull on the imagination has continued over the centuries. According to legend, he was a rebel against social injustice who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

Every generation gets its Robin Hood redux. In the newest movie based on the legend, Russell Crowe steps inside the boots once filled by Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Sean Connery and Kevin Costner. A screenplay with a multitasking agenda overwhelms Crowe’s sensitive performance, depicting a just and spiritual man as well as a skilled archer. The new Robin Hood is an “origin story” in Hollywood lingo, and the hero never gets around to robbing the rich. In a theme the GOP must love, he actually saves the rich from tax collectors when he isn’t fighting off an invasion by those hated, freedom-fry-loving Frenchmen. In his spare time he becomes a constitutional reformer, trying to impose the Magna Carta, the ancestor of our Bill of Rights, on a reluctant monarch.

The rather dour project by director Ridley Scott (Gladiator) is neither as fun as it should be nor as deep as it wants to be. History is rearranged to suit the hopscotch story. Good ideas were probably muddled on the journey from the green light to the multiplex. Robin is established early on as a teller of truth to power. While returning from the Crusades, the English king, Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), asks bold Robin for his opinion of their adventure in foreign parts. “God will not be pleased,” Robin says of the slaughter committed in religion’s name.

The vainglorious Richard, felled not by a Saracen blade but a French arrow, proves to be a better man than his successor, the decadent, tax-and-spend wastrel named John (Oscar Isaac). The new king dispatches an army to squeeze the last pence from the pockets of the noblemen, a plundering expedition led by the brutal, shaven-headed Godfrey (Mark Strong), a traitor scheming to deliver the English crown into the hands of the king of France. It’s a busy story and not especially well arranged.

The film has some good touches. The best moments from the many siege scenes capture the clank and snap, the rattle and groan of medieval warfare. The brutal squalor of northern Europe in those days is vividly depicted. The script has its eloquent moments scattered among the cumbersome plot. The cast is entirely capable, but anyone expecting the merry panache of old (of olde?) will be disappointed.

Familiar characters from the Robin Hood legend make appearances. As always, Little John (Kevin Durand) is a big man; Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) is rotund and full of mead. Other characters are transformed. Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett) is no wallflower this time, but instead an independent woman who can run a feudal estate and fight with bow and sword. The usual bad guy, the Sheriff of Nottingham, is a sniveling bungler with little screen time.

Of course, the film sets up its own sequel, in which Robin Hood might actually rob from the rich and cross swords with the nefarious sheriff. The future of this franchise belongs to the public. If enough tickets are sold, Robin Hood II: Return to Sherwood Forest will probably be wheeled into place like a cumbersome siege engine in the summer of 2012. We anxiously await Hollywood’s pleasure.
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