So, it’s 1199AD. The bad old days of 1066 are a distant memory … except; the French are still trying to invade. The country is without leadership because the King, Richard the Lionheart, has been out of the country on Crusade. And that’s where we find him: hacking and slashing his way across Europe, going home. He’s made it as far as Northern France but, unfortunately, will make it no nearer English soil.
This is worrying because that god-awful abomination featuring Kevin Costner in a mullet and Alan Rickman cancelling Christmas all kicked-off with Robin Hood on Crusade with Richard. Fortunately, that’s where the similarities end.
This is Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood! It’s not a camp Hollywood vanity project; it’s a proper muddy medieval movie (which conveniently allows him to use up any spare props he had left over from Kingdom of Heaven - 2005).
Richard’s crown needs a courier to take it back to England and place it on the head of the weaselly Prince John. One Robert Loxley gets the job and is then promptly ambushed by the evil Godfrey (played by Mark Strong in entirely too much eye-liner) and killed. Now, hang on; the more perceptive of you may be thinking that Robin Loxley is Robin Hood’s real name. Well, you’d be right. And wrong.
Russell Crowe is actually playing lowly archer Robin Longstride, a trooper who has no property and no title to call his own, so he’s just a peasant like all the rest of the grunts he surrounds himself with. There’s the ginger fellow called Will, the big bloke called Little John … you get the idea. He finds the dying Loxley and the Lionheart’s crown and sees an opportunity. His only sure way of getting back to England alive is to go as Robert Loxley, the courier of the crown. Got that now? Good.
Once in Sherwood, Robin finds it populated by his ‘father’ (Max Von Sydow) who is old but, of course, infinitely wise and his ‘wife’, (Cate Blanchette) who is, as the Americans might say, spunky. There’s also a gang of feral kids, the orphans of the local towns and villages, who seem more and more like The Lost Boys, desperately in need of a father figure.
So, despite how complicated this all may sound, the characters are introduced and the set-up is constructed at a fair old lick. The scenes are short and sharp, the dialogue terse and to the point; but then scribe, Brian Helgeland, has proven himself in the past to be a dab hand at snappy dialogue in everything from LA Confidential (1997) to Payback (1999 / 2006). Just an aside: But one wonders how he found the time to write this since he also wrote the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, The Vampire’s Assistant and Green Zone.
The velocity of constantly moving characters, constantly changing scenes and constantly evolving plots and sub-plots give the film the roller-coaster feel of recent TV shows like 24 or Lost. Unlike those programmes, however, this film doesn’t have time to develop deep, complex characters so everyone is a hastily sketched-out stereotype and the actors are then required to fill those caricatures with wit and personality.
Kevin Durand does particularly well with Little John, while Mark Addy follows in the grand tradition of Eugene Pallette as the epitome of Tuck. But it’s seasoned trooper, Von Sydow who steals the show as Loxley Senior, revelling in the chance to play a good guy for once. These characters are played so lightly that you really enjoy their company, even though they aren’t really given anything very substantial to do.
Crowe himself is typically earnest and gruff. Which, of course, means he’s trust-worthy. Indeed, he is identified in the film’s opening moments as one of the few honest brave men in the English army. The accent he chooses to assume never ceases to amuse, ranging across the full spectrum of English regional brogues, from Scouse to the West Country to Yorkshire to the occasional dash of Irish.
This film is nasty, brutish and … quite long, but it carries its two hours and twenty minutes lightly and keeps up the pace and the sense of fun throughout. Even the necessary political intrigue is dealt with simply and succinctly so that the film doesn’t get bogged down in the tedious history-lesson that dogged Kingdom of Heaven.
But, of course, there’d be no thrills without a sense of danger and, indeed, a darkness is approaching in the shape of black-cape-wearing Godfrey and his militia of French soldiers, burning their way through the cities in the North in an attempt to create Civil War in Britain.
Civil War along the North/South divide? Never happen. Utterly preposterous.
The French invasion of Dover at the film’s show-down is disturbingly reminiscent of the D-Day landings, only in reverse. Oddly, I don’t think we’ve seen the invasion of Britain depicted in many movies, which is odd for a country that has been invaded so frequently.
The film isn’t without its faults, of course. The arc of the characters is all fairly predictable and not everyone gets a fair crack at the whip. Not entirely sure what Matthew Macfadyen, for example, was doing there as a rather limp and invertebrate Sheriff of Nottingham; apart from laying the ground-work for a much-expanded role if Crowe and Scott get their way and get to make a sequel. Further, the taming of The Feral Children happens immediately and off-screen, suggesting that an entire sub-plot featuring Marian and the boys has hit the cutting-room floor (or the ‘extended, uncut Blu-Ray’ as we now refer to it).
Also, in view of the wished-for sequel - and despite all the marketing imagery - they haven't really made a big deal out of Robin's extraordinary archery skills, not until the end does he get the opportunity to show off by hitting a few impossible targets. That, you see, will all come into its own in the second film. If they get to make it. But, y'know, don't hold your breath, Ridley's got two back-to-back Alien films on his plate for the next couple of years!
This film isn’t as visually striking as, say, Gladiator (2000), but it has the same heroic, mythic quality. This isn’t an Epic, like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven and 1692: Conquest of Paradise (1992) were, but it isn’t trying to be, it’s an adventure yarn on a grand old-fashioned Hollywood scale and, as such, a worthy successor to Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
Sir Ridley, congratulations, you have delivered the second best Robin Hood film ever made. Yes, that’s right, it’s almost as good as the Disney cartoon!
Dir: Ridley Scott
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Stars: Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Cate Blanchette, Max Von Sydow.
Dur: 140 mins