Sunday, May 16, 2010

Robin Hood

There's a huge gulf between talking about the best movies and talking about your favorite movies. A handful of classics, like Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark, fit comfortably into both categories. Others, like Citizen Kane and To Kill a Mockingbird, are acknowledged masterpieces and mandatory viewing for any serious student of film, but I'm not gonna pretend like I regularly pop them in and kick back with a cold one. And then on my list of all-time favorites that are in no way masterpieces you would find movies like GoldenEye, The Karate Kid, Wayne's World, and of course, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

The critics shit on Prince of Thieves in 1991 and they continue to shit on it today, but hey, fuck 'em. I love that movie with a feverish glee, American-accented Robin Hood and all, and could give one iota of one one-millionth of a shit how this may reflect on my tastes. I love its freewheeling adventure spirit, its rousing score, its rollicking action scenes, and most importantly Alan Rickman devouring the scenery in bloody, twitching chunks as the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham. I've seen it so many times I can damn near quote along with it while I watch and I could (and probably would, if I didn't consciously stop myself) go on for hundreds of words on that film alone, but I'll save that for a future retrospective review. For today I feel like it's just important to establish upfront the heavy baggage I carried with me into Ridley Scott's new Robin Hood.

This ain't the Robin Hood story you think you know, whether in the form of Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, or Disney cartoon animals. While basically every other version of the myth ends with the return of the heroic King Richard, this movie begins with a dickhead version of King Richard dying in battle on his way back from the Crusades — not a spoiler, it happens like ten minutes in — and the traditional Prince John villain receiving an upgrade to King John. He squabbles with his advisors while one of Richard's archers, Robin Longstride, returns to England and finds himself looking over a small farming village called Nottingham alongside a widow named Marian. Meanwhile, King Philip of France plots to make war on a weakened England. Big battle scenes ensue.

Ridley Scott aimed to bring Robin Hood down to earth and in that straightforward respect he was successful. The problem is that he arguably brought Robin Hood crashing down to earth, jammed like a square peg in a round hole into a generic semi-epic of medieval warfare and political intrigue. Change the names of Robin, Little John, Marian, and the village of Nottingham and I'd pretty much have no idea that this screenplay was ever written with the intention of being a Robin Hood movie — even the villain, a French spy and marauder named Godfrey, is a brand new creation, with the Sheriff reduced to a piddling, zero-impact supporting character. It ends up feeling like a little bit of Robin Hood mythos accidentally leaked onto a print of Braveheart or Gladiator so they said fuck it and decided to release it in theaters, albeit with the bloodshed dialed back to PG-13 levels.

That's not to imply that the movie is boring or devoid of action; there's plenty of battles, hundreds dead, and even a spot of comic relief in Little John and Friar Tuck. But — and this is where my Prince of Thieves bias comes in — when I think of Robin Hood the giant neon sign in my mind flashes the word ADVENTURE, and I would in no way, shape, or form ever describe Scott's Robin Hood as an adventure movie. A medieval war movie perhaps, but not an adventure movie. There's a little bit of travel, sure, but Robin spends at least half if not more of the runtime just chilling in Nottingham, flirting with Marian and tilling the soil. And, sorry to be unimaginative, but I wanna see Robin Hood getting chased, sneaking under the enemy's nose in disguise, picking up new companions on his journey, swashbuckling, and in general feeling like a rogue, none of which this Robin Hood does. It's a bizarrely dry interpretation of one of popular fiction's most infamous scoundrels.

Part of the problem is the badly miscast leads. There's fun to be had in Kevin Durand's Little John, Max von Sydow's Sir Walter Loxley, Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass's Mark Strong further cementing his villainous typecasting as Godfrey, and even a bit of scenery-chewing in Oscar Isaac's King John, but however many Academy Awards they may have between them I don't think that Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett were right for Robin and Marian. Fine actors, especially Blanchett, but they have virtually no personalities in this movie and no romantic chemistry whatsoever. Dryness emanates from them; I was worried they would near a spark and catch flame.

It's also kind of bizarre how the film purports to be the beginning of the legend, yet Robin Hood is played by an actor nearing fifty. Don't get me wrong; I'm not one of those morons who needs all my film leads to be whippersnappers — I'm the world's biggest enthusiast of 57-year-old Liam Neeson's newfound career as a pulpy action star and I was appalled at them casting sexy teens as Superman and Lois Lane in Superman Returns — but both Crowe and Blanchett just look too damn old for these parts. I would have rather seen someone like, I don't know, Stardust's Charlie Cox as Robin Hood. Not as good an actor, no, but better for this role. Fuck, I never, ever thought I'd say this, but even Orlando Bloom would have been better.

As for what the film gets right, if you've seen Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven (which, by the way, in its director's cut form ties for Alien as the best film Scott's ever done) you know that Ridley Scott has a real talent for making these medieval epics look and feel just right. The sets, the costumes, the castles, the villages, the weaponry, the layer of Middle Ages dirt and grime on everything, it all looks great, especially bolstered by beautiful cinematography. I won't go so far as to say it makes you want to be there, but it's authentic and drawn with painterly skill, simply a nice movie to look at and watch unfold on a big screen, whatever near-fatal weaknesses may be found in the storytelling.

Therein lies the problem when it comes to whether or not I'd recommend seeing Robin Hood. The de facto middle ground recommendation with a middle-of-the-road movie like this seems to be to suggest renting it on DVD, but there's no way you should watch a movie where nearly all pleasure derives from letting the medieval settings are warfare wash over you on your television screen. It insists to be seen in theaters. But it's not good enough to unconditionally recommend, so I'll add a condition: if you're really into medieval settings and conflict, check out Robin Hood at a cheap matinee screening. If not, then just watch Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves again. That's right, you big baby, you know you like it.

2 Stars out of 5

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