Folks, this is a review just for Robin Hood. A separate review for the remastered Gladiator contained in this double-pack will follow.
Rise and Rise Again … until Lambs become Lions.
Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe step back into hallowed antiquity to retool another heroic warrior and defender of forgotten ideals amid a world of corruption, tyranny and war. After the phenomenal success of Gladiator – and boy do the two of them probably wish that they hadn't killed off Maximus at the end – the regular team-up of director and star (five films and the two hoping for a second shot at this saga, as well) had cast around to find another suitable outlet for Sir Scott's unparalleled visionary gift for world creation (only Peter Jackson's LOTR universe matches his technical eye for detail and authenticity) and Crowe's unflinching old school machismo and burly, unglamorous screen presence, hoping to recreate the same magic. With Robin Hood one of those never-ending sources of cinematic revenue, and the legend having been filmed so many times that only a realistic take on the premise would be fresh for audiences, it seemed that the dynamic duo had found the perfect outlet for their brand of historical blood and thunder.
By sheer luck – both good and bad – super-archer Robin Longstride and his trusted buddies from those finally ending Crusades stumble upon a dastardly plot to cause civil war back in England and, by hook and by crook (a stolen identity for Robin that will lead him to Nottingham to fulfil a dying man's honour), our boys get ahead of the returning English army and deliver the sad news of the death of King Richard, thereby setting in-motion the tyrannical rule of his treacherous brother, John, and incurring the obsessional vengeance of the scurrilous double-agent Sir Godfrey – opening-up the scoundrel's cheek with an arrow obviously didn't endear the woodsman very much. He and his happily whoring chums discover corruption and repression aplenty, but once they get wind of a coming French invasion, they manage to find the old William Wallace book of rousing speeches and succeed in changing a rabble into an army and providing Winston Churchill with a speech of his own … about fighting them on the beaches and whatnot. The result has Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, and everybody else involved, clearly have a terrific time charging about the countryside and setting-to with vigour and gusto in what isn't the legend of Robin Hood, but the superhero origin story of that legend.
“If your husband isn't dead, he's rutting his way through the brothels of the Barbary Coast.”
Tough work … but someone's got to do it!
But whatever their intentions were, Scott and Crowe cannot deny that they are reworking the same formula as Gladiator. Almost everything falls into place. An opening battle that is significantly set at the end of a huge campaign. A crusty, revered and much-loved King who seeks to find the soul of a trusted symbol – Maximus for Marcus Aurelius, Longstride'll do for King John – and Danny Huston even fashions a slowish, breath-filled voice that very closely resembles that of Richard Harris' tired old emperor. The hero's abject refusal to fight any longer for a cause that he cannot believe in and an intense desire to get back home, combined, remind us of Maximus even away from the almighty visual similarity between the two characters – the close-shorn hair and the “man's man” beard of yore. And we have, once again, a simpering, pathetic, narcissistic new liege who will set about destroying a nation from the inside with the same petulant élan that Joaquin Phoenix infused his despicable Emperor Commodus with. Robin, the underdog, mistreated and downtrodden despite his great service to King and Crown, finds himself on a similar path of grass-roots rebellion. Another sword is thrown to him as he thunders past on a mighty steed and is caught smartly in one hand with an accompanying grunt of sinew-taut masculinity as he seeks to right some wrongs and fight injustice. Much testosterone is stirred with rousing speeches, and there is even talk of “fate smiling upon us” once more. If you were to put this Robin on the TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?”, there can be no doubt that his lineage would trace back to a certain Spaniard commanding the Felix Legions of Rome.
Now, for me personally, this is not a problem at all. Maximus is my favourite fictional hero of all time and to see him return from the afterlife in the guise of an old English folkloric outlaw seems only fitting. But this element, coupled with the obvious satisfaction that Crowe feels at playing the super-macho lead once more and spearheading our fascination for another time period and another mythology, does smack of self-indulgence and nepotism that Scott is more than happy to nursemaid. So, in other words, this is little more than a massive vanity project for the pair of them. And yet … even realising this and eventually recognising the film's vast armada of failings, I still like it quite a lot. Scott being lazy is still a hundred times better than most other directors at the top of their game can be – even when they have, say, ten years to perfect a story whilst they wait for the required technology to catch up with them, eh, Mr. Cameron?
“So what would you have me do? Give every Englishman a castle?”
Heh, heh … nice one, Sire! That put the upstart in his place.
“An Englishman's home is his castle!”
Ooh, I think he's got you there, Sire. Sorry. Well said, Robin!
Once again, Scott proves that he is a master at cinematic world creation, this time finding a genuine medieval ambience to his Olde English setting of rolling meadows, authentic hamlets and castles, white cliffs and, most breathtaking of all, a glorious long-shot of the Royal transport heading up the Thames towards an imposing Tower of London, with Westminster Cathedral marvellously cast amid a sprawling settlement that clearly has its sights set on becoming, in time, a vast metropolis. No amount of frosted lenses, slow-motion horse-charges, arrow-time trajectories or frenetic, hand-held frame-jumping can distract us from the loving attention that Scott-regulars production designer Arthur Max and costumier Janty Yates give to their earthy subject. Gone are the sun-baked vistas of Gladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven, replaced by a soothing autumnal cast that seems to threaten rain, but manages to keep the atmosphere poised at the brink throughout. It feels classically English, and the photography from regular DOP John Mathieson (Gladiator, Kingdom Of Heaven, Hannibal) is proud to roam across grassy cliffs, tide-blasted beaches, wooded glades and impressively muddy mock-up fortresses.
So Scott can control the environment. That’s a good start. And there is a great cast in here as well, folks. Mark Strong, possibly the definitive cinematic bad guy of the moment, with villainous roles in Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass to bolster his boo-hiss credentials, is terrifically callous as the Guy of Gisbourne riff, Sir Godfrey. He exudes educated sadism and dark, self-serving treachery with every breath. In fact, I doubt very much if he'll ever be able to convince anyone when he plays a good guy after this hat-trick of scumbaggery! Cate Blanchett is surprising good value as the most pro-active Maid Marion seen on-screen to date. A number of critics at the time of the film's theatrical release derided her valiant Joan Of Arc call-to-arms, but if they had paid a bit more attention to the unfolding story – even that truncated version which eliminated a couple of moments that cemented her stature as a go-getting woman-of-action – then they should have noted that her character had been feisty and aggressive right from the very start. The first scene in the film actually has her rising to defend her property and lands from the foraging feral tribe of forest urchins – even firing a marvellous flaming arrow at them in a move that probably rivals anything that Robin can do … I mean she actually aims to miss. Thus, seeing her in chainmail and armour and riding into noble battle is hardly the giant leap that many made out. Her relationship with Crowe's man-of-the-hood (no dirty jokes please) is also just as believable. In fact, this element of a curiously unstable film at large, is conveyed very well. Imagine if Marion had been played by a younger woman – the production had initially eyed-up Sienna Miller for the part. The clumsy and gradual infatuation between the two would have been unlikely and, I dare say, uncomfortable to watch. We're not talking Roger Moore dropping innuendos with comely young Bond-babes (“Steady on, my dear, you've made my arrow quiver!”), but the age of the two actors enables this middle-years romance to fit quite naturally. Plus, it is great to see that she stands her ground with any would-be suitors and/or rapists. Aye, Blanchett works as Maid Marion.
“In the name of King John, pay or burn!”
Danny Huston is okay as King Richard – portraying him as a medieval toff with such a queer sense of grandeur that he feels the need to find the soul of what he has been fighting for all these years … something that he believes resides in the common man that he rules. But infinitely better is Oscar Isaac as his scheming, duplicitous and purely Tory brother and King-to-be, John. Casually plucking the freshly caught pubic hair from his French totty off his tongue to address his gate-crashing mother, played with regally suppressed resentment by Eileen Atkins, he is not so much the combination of Robert Plant and Richard Nixon that the actor had intended, but rather a less exasperated Edmund Blackadder. He does it well, sniding and backstabbing his way to historical notoriety, whilst Strong handles the physical stuff and the leg-work. Matthew Macfadyen becomes rather sidelined with nothing but a few choice, but perhaps ill-fitting comedy lines (“I'm part French … er, on my mother's side!”) as the limp-wristed Sheriff of Nottingham. Ridley assumes that we will get to know him a lot better when, and if he gets a second shot on this cinematic target. William Hurt crops up with straggly hair and a beard as the Earl of Pembroke, and he does quite well as one of the political hangers-on of the story.
Max Von Sydow, so often wheeled-out as a form of Hollywood Royalty to act as a badge of honour on the credit list for a movie (see Solomon Kane) is also very good here as the blind but convincingly wise old Walter, Earl Of Locksley, who can see a lot more going on around him than he makes out. And the plus side of this casting is that he is not there in merely a cameo role. He actually makes a difference to the path that Robin is taking. It is tempting to view him as The Seventh Sign's Death-stalling, chess-playing Crusader, Antonius Blok, returned from the afterlife for just one more chance to create happiness around him before he disappears forever. Sydow is great value even if he does look like a head-on collision between Ebenezer Scrooge and Albert Steptoe.
But what is Robin Hood without his Merry Men?
Well, there's a whopping big irony here, folks. There is unfortunately a woeful dearth of chemistry between Robin and his initial trio of men-at-arms. These guys – Scott Grimes' Will Scarlett, Kevin Durand's Little John and Alan Doyle's Allan A'Dayle - are all Crowe's friends in real life, yet there is precious little authentic bonhomie between them. And it is poor pandering to convention that dictates that every scene they are in has them all in-shot together almost like that three-headed knight in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, as though they act as a single unit. Even Errol Fynn's mighty and definitive version of the story allowed each of the Merry Men some of their own time in the lamplight. Having acted with Grimes and Durand a long time before on Mystery, Alaska and been mates with Canadian band Great Big Sea's lead singer-songwriter, Doyle, for a number of years, Crowe insisted that these three be his co-stars because he wanted the troop to act and move in-synch and be obvious long-standing buddies and companions. Yet this doesn't really come across all that well. The trio are, more often than not, just there at Robin's beck and call – and you could argue that this is how it is pretty much in real life too with Russell's super-ego on the demand. I just don't buy that these fellers would go into battle alongside him, that they would stick by him through thick and thin. That sort of camaraderie just isn't there, I'm afraid. But the three are still very likeable personalities without Robin … it's just that there isn't enough of them. Being an established folk-singer, Doyle actually plays the character's trademark lute for real throughout the film and acts like a daily newscaster of all the things they've seen and done. “Today, we kicked some Frenchie's arse and did some Channel-swimmin' … Tonight, we'll drink some foamin' ale and then we'll bed some women!!” You know, that sort of thing.
Merry these Men are … but they don't belong with this Robin.
And the less said about Mark Addy's utterly bland Friar Tuck the better. He is clearly an after-thought in this tale.
There are quite a few other problems with this film, too. Now whilst I am still a massive fan of Russell Crowe, the actor, I have to concede that he is not exactly the right man for this particular incarnation of Robin Hood. He is too old. Plain and simple. When Sean Connery took on the part, at only one year Crowe's senior, in Richard Lester Robin and Marian (1976) he was playing the hero at the fading of his career as the fabled outlaw, and enjoying nostalgia in the woods and meadows with Audrey Hepburn's equally ageing Marion. It was a swansong, and it was surprisingly effective casting. But despite the fact that Robin Longstride has seen extensive service in the army of King Richard, so is justifiably a little bit older than, say, Jonas Armstrong from the recent TV series, he still seems a bit too leathery and long in the tooth, as well as in the stride, to become the man who will then lead an extensive guerrilla campaign of tax re-deployment and social rebellion. Little scenes early on of him entertaining the troops and getting embroiled in humorous scrapping don't ring true. What you are seeing here is Russell Crowe being Russell Crowe, or rather how Russell Crowe would like you to perceive him … as the joker, the loveable rogue … and still a bit tough and ready for it. Even if Robin isn't the noble warrior just yet, and he has some journey to experience first before that happens, this paints a happy-go-lucky picture that isn't even true to how his character appears and acts shortly thereafter. However, his switch-around to the Robin that we know and love isn't too bad once this aimless preamble is forgotten about, but why does Helgeland feel obliged to give Robin some destiny-bound backstory that folds the tale awkwardly back into the land of myth and fable that Scott seems hell-bent to avoid? I'll admit that I was touched by the inclusion of some father/son philosophies – heartfelt comments regarding such relationships designed to strike a chord somewhere in everyone (Robin's hand fitting his father's own print becoming this film’s interpretation of the little figurines that Maximus regains in Gladiator, the understanding of familial honour, and the clever way in which Sydow's aged patriarch acts as a surrogate father to both Robin and Marion) – but was any of this actually necessary to have us empathise with Robin's belief in himself? I think, at the end of the day, this is merely a sort of compromise for the terrible events that happen to Maximus' family at the orders of that naughty boy-emperor. There, our hero battles to get back to his wife and son and, finding that he is too late to save them, battles to join them in the afterlife (and get some righteous payback along the way). Here, Robin is the son, lost to his father and hugely in need of some paternal guidance to set him on the right path. I admire the symmetry being created, but not so much the execution of it.
There is nothing new that Crowe brings to the party this time out. Lacking the intensity, except during the battle scenes, and even then it is largely reserved for arrow-notching, aiming and firing, he is feather-light as a hero and an icon this time out. His wildly variable accent is a lamentable mistake that makes the character unintentionally amusing. Basically, Crowe’s tonsils have it weaving about all over the British Isles, and it would have been infinitely better if he'd just kept his own thick, wasp-guzzling brogue for the part. Listen to his opening lines during the castle-siege - dear God, Russ, that's just dreadful, mate – and even if things do seem to settle down throughout long stretches (when he's simply forgotten to take his accent pill for an hour or two) a sudden inflection will catch you unawares and have you tittering once again. Even Kevin Costner didn't fall for this obvious old trap. But you can feel that Crowe believes he is creating the newest, freshest and the best Robin Hood on the market. He forgets to pack that essential sense of genuine adventure, though – and for all his bluff and bluster, his incarnation is still rather boring.
“It wasn’t fear in her eyes. Nor hate. It was pity. For in that moment, she knew that we had become godless.”
The action scenes are workmanlike, and nothing more. Considering that Scott pretty much set the bar for intense action with Black Hawk Down and Kingdom Of Heaven, with the clumsy and strenuous brutality of both Gladiator and Kingdom having the most obvious emphasis on Robin's mayhem. But maybe the fact that Scott was aiming this particular arrow at the larger target of a more family-orientated audience means that he pulls quite a few punches. Okay, we get to see innocent women, children and old folk rounded-up and locked into huts to be burned alive by those nasty Frenchies, but the actual mêlées and skirmishes are quite pedestrian and really rather sanitised. An early confrontation in the woods has been lifted from Mann's superlative The Last Of The Mohicans, even down to the fact that one of our two main enemies escapes from the other by the skin of his teeth – quite literally in this case! Crowe looks bloody good striking the Errol Flynn pose, especially as he wears that grim scowl so well and really looks like he means business, and the arrow-hits are well done, but this isn't like Braveheart or the extended cut of Troy, and the relatively bloodless combat inevitably leaves much to be desired by those of us that salivate at the prospect of detailed and realistic inter-personal carnage. But Scott is still superb as marshalling hordes of extras and mountains of hardware and unleashing them across his meticulously studied battlefields amid a combination of CG, practical effects and vast numbers of combatants. His opening siege is brilliantly done, with some incredible fiery stunts and a genuine sense of dangerous momentum, although he rather undoes this good stuff with some truly corny action for Crowe's bulky brand of derring-do when the ace-archer runs to the rescue of a young comrade. But, man, Crowe can ride a horse! The action-on-the-hoof, as it were, is actually very good – so no worries there. It is just that the man-to-man fury is so hum-drum. Even the big Omaha-style beach landing is thunderously lacking in excitement once the horses have made their charge across the sand. Lots of heaving 'n' cleaving but no real damage is ever done. In fact, I thought the Extended Version would have rectified this, but the fight remains the same and it is, truth be told, as dull as dishwater. Scott Grimes gets to do the age-old Fairbanks/Flynn-style high-rise leap – from a thatched roof to a wooden walkway, but the resulting kick he delivers to an enemy's noggin is dealt such a wimpy clout-effect that the whole thing is watered-down. Such a shame. Even Costner’s anachronistic version summoned up more suspense and tension with its sieges, rescues and escapes.
“Your father, Sir Walter, owes taxes to the crown, my crown. Tell him it’s bloody expensive running a country and everyone must pay their way.”
The medieval template for David Cameron’s “Big Society” swings into place.
The score from Marc Streitenfeld isn't great, but it is nowhere near as bad as some writers have commented. It is certainly true that he emulates the motifs and styles found in both Gladiator and Braveheart, but then, given the story that he is dealing with, I truly think it would have been hard not to. Plaintiff Celtic passages harken back to William Wallace's sacrificial doom, and even if there is a refreshing absence of synth and samples, the repetitive nature of the many non-lyrical cues has the Hans Zimmer vogue running right the way through their admittedly effective and melodic veins. This is not surprising, of course, as Streitenfeld is one of Zimmer's time-served protégées, and actually worked alongside the prolific Oscar-winning composer on Scott's own Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Hannibal. The irony being that although he brings in period instruments such as the lutes, fiddles and whistles, Uillean Pipes and the Hurdy Gurdy, it is the more conventional percussion rhythms that are the most effective without sounding forced and contrived. The throbbing echo of Sir Godfrey's theme is a marvellously economic phrase of out-and-out villainy, literally stabbing out across the film to totally embody Mark Strong's dastardly swine. The main theme, as swooningly familiar as it is (it even reminds of Shrek and Deep Blue Sea!) eventually seeps into you and becomes quite stirring and moving at the same time. And if Kathleen Macinnes' solo vocals soaring forth from the Metro Voices choir don't come anywhere the haunting quality of Lisa Gerrard, then it is because she is not wailing in tragedy or lament, but in hope and optimism.
Despite my misgivings about the film, the Director's Cut is certainly the better option for what is already a long story. Barring the rather naff sequence in which Marion attempts to help some peasants remove a goat from an inconvenient mud-bath - which is one of those horrible devices for a bonding-cum-budding romance session between her and Robin (and the goat) – the additional scenes genuinely help one of the important subplots to develop properly. The feral tribe of youths living in the forest of Sherwood have a much greater bearing on the story now. They appear far more often with Marion first, then Robin – in a scene that resembles Mad Max encountering the lost tribe in the desert Beyond Thunderdome - coming to understand their plight and how their guerrilla lifestyle and tactics will be of assistance in the coming storm. This stuff actually makes sense and certainly helps out the rather corny moment when the pack leader rescues Marion from the hut, and even gives a lot more credence to the, otherwise, appalling moment when she leads this tribe into battle on what look like Shetland Ponies, like the last charge of the Hobbits. At the cinema, watching the shorter cut without all these theme-developing scenes, this bit struck me as the absolute worst thing that I'd ever seen in a Ridley Scott film, and it took a while for me to haul my jaw back up off the floor afterwards. Elsewhere, the film doesn't actually gain anything with the extra material except for allowing you to spend more time in such a beautiful looking visualisation of Olde England which is superb even if nothing else grips you.
“When it suits me.”
Robin Hood didn't set the world on fire at all when it came out, totally flying in the face of the rip-roaring success its creators believed it would enjoy. The Gladiator magic wasn't there, yet they tried so hard to emulate it. The cross-hatching of fact and fiction, history and myth wasn't so clever an idea at all. It seems people know exactly what they want from a Robin Hood story – and they don't want realism or, as it turns out, Ridley's not-so-real realism. But, damn it all, despite the many shortcomings (and running time certainly isn't one of those!) the film is very enjoyable. There is action and open-air adventure, romance and political skulduggery, some comedy and a lot of exquisite filming to savour. Almost in spite of itself, Robin Hood is actually perfect Saturday afternoon entertainment. Overblown and forgettable, yet fine escapism just the same. At the end of the day, it's a great old fashioned story in the mould of El Cid, Helen Of Troy and The 300 Spartans. It's only barely Robin Hood, though … and it falls far short of what this team-up could have, and should have accomplished with such steadfast and swashbuckling material.
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