In a twelfth century twist on a modern saying, the only two things you can count on in “Robin Hood,” the handsome new retelling of the age old tale from director Ridley Scott, are taxes and treachery.
Set in the waning days of Richard the Lion Heart’s (Danny Huston) ten year long Crusade, the origin story of how Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) became Robin Hood, really picks up when Robin promises one of the king’s knights, Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), that he will deliver a sword to Robert’s father, Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow), in Nottingham. Meanwhile, Richard’s ridiculous brother Prince John (Oscar Isaac) ignores his trusted advisors, his chancellor William Marshall (William Hurt) and his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins) and imposes crippling taxes on his subjects. Egging him on is the duplicitous Godfrey (Mark Strong), a traitor who is secretly trying to start a civil war and help France invade the country. Back in Nottingham, Robin delivers the sword, meets Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett), helps save England from the French and for his trouble is declared an outlaw by King John.
The new “Robin Hood” isn’t the bright Technicolor tale of the famous Errol Flynn version. Scott’s vision of the story is dark, thematically and visually. It’s a raw boned and bloody story of greed, unfettered ambition and treachery with a complex plot that touches on some very modern issues like taxes, too much government and one that might make the people of Arizona happy—unwanted immigration. It’s a mostly historically correct representation of the time and the Robin Hood legend, but Scott has added in an unbelievable plot twist involving Robin’s father and a coincidence that stretches credulity to the breaking point. It seems so out-of-place and glaringly silly I’m sure the writers of the campy cartoon series “Rocket Robin Hood” would have rejected the idea as being too outlandish.
Despite that lapse in judgment, the movie works. Fans of “Gladiator” will feel a sense of déjà vu—the only thing separating the two movies is the time period and Richard Harris and Oliver Reed, and they’re both dead. Scott and Crowe have returned to the winning formula of historical drama mixed with strong characters and lots of crazy action.
At the center of it all is Crowe, possibly the only Hollywood a-lister he-man enough to pull off “Robin Hood’s” combo of raging machismo, honor and emotional intensity. Physically he doesn’t look like he spends much time at the gym, instead it seems like he earned those muscles the old fashioned way—by swinging a sword. Equally strong is Blanchett in a role that could be redubbed, Maid Marion, Warrior Princess. She defines twelfth century girl power and, as one of only three female characters, cuts through the thick cloud of testosterone that hangs over the movie like a cloud. The supporting cast, including Mark Strong—in what is now becoming his trademark bad guy routine—Max Von Sydow, William Hurt, Danny Huston and Canadian Kevin Durand as the ironically named Little John, add much to the overall effect.
“Robin Hood” is a new take on an old story; it’s entertaining, occasionally funny and as epic a film as we’re likely to see this summer.