If nothing else, Ridley Scott deserves respect for his dedication to epic filmmaking in a world of unambitious fluff. With movies like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven Scott was able to make historical epics which took themselves seriously and looked like they were constructed with meticulous detail. It makes sense that, with this as his ambitious, that he’s heavily used Russell Crowe as his star. As Chris rock once put it during his stint as an Oscar host: “if it’s set in the past, get Russell Crowe’s ass.” The guy has exactly the gravitas for this kind of thing and he’s also accessible to modern sensibilities. He’s not as effective in Scott films set in the present like A Good Year and Body of Lies, but he isn’t bad either. Now this collaboration is being brought into a new decade with Robin Hood.
This adaptation of the folk legend set in 1199 is seemingly more closely rooted in history than most adaptations of the story. The title character begins as Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe), a common archer returning from The Third Crusade with Richard the Lionheart’s (Danny Houston) men. After Richard is killed in a routine skirmish his crown is stolen by a French double agent named Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), but is retrieved by Robin, who decides to deliver it home under the guise of Robert Loxley of Nottingham (Douglas Hodge) a noble knight killed in the crown skirmish. After the delivery of the crown he goes to Nottingham, where Robert Loxley’s elderly father (Max Von Sydow) and his widow Lady Marianne (Cate Blanchett) decide to let Longstride continue the masquerade. Meanwhile Sir Godfrey is manipulating Richard’s heir, King John (Oscar Issac), into overtaxing the populace in a scheme to divide English people prior to a French invasion.
At the heart of this story seems to be some fairly nefarious 21st century politics. For the film Robin Hood, a character who has traditionally robbed from the rich and given to the poor (socialism!), has been turned into an angry man posing as a member of the nobility fighting against taxes. I’m sure this was in production long before the teabaggers began spreading their brand of “populism,” but the film sure seems to be the work of a couple of wealthy establishment filmmakers whining about their taxes. Of course it’s kind of hard to end a plot like that with a big bombastic action scene, so the screenplay sweats bullets trying to make the true villains behind all of this into another target of conservative rage: the French. I’m also not going to spend too much time trying to decipher the film’s historical accuracy. I’m willing to bet that most of it is fiction, and I think that’s probably fine, Gladiator certainly isn’t one for the history books either but a good story is a good story.
The film’s script certainly needs work, but overall I found Robin Hood to be a surprisingly strong piece of work. The film got brutalized by critics when it came out early this summer where it was seen as part of a string of poor blockbuster releases. I don’t think that’s fair. Maybe it’s because I saw the Director’s Cut, maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for elaborately constructed historical epics, or maybe I just believe that Ridley Scott’s work has a respectability that elevates it from its peers in the summer movie rat race, but I quite enjoyed the film and feel like it was treated unfairly in its original release. It’s no Gladiator, and for that matter it’s no Kingdom of Heaven, but it’s well made and has a healthy gravitas. Perhaps the Abrams-ization of the summer blockbuster has made it hard to appreciate large scale filmmaking that doesn’t view its subject as a big joke that’s hurt Scott’s credibility, but I’m standing by the guy.
*** out of Four