PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW
Robin Hood (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Ridley Scott, 2010
“To live outside the law, you must be honest,“ Bob Dylan once sang (in “”Absolutely Sweet Marie,“ from “Blonde on Blonde“). And that’s the credo that permeates most of the many, many screen incarnations of Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest, that most honest of outlaws, most dashing of rebels, and most enduring of British historical legends and heroes. From Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. to Errol Flynn to Richard Greene to both Sean and Jason Connery, Kevin Costner and now Russell Crowe, Robin, as he’s portrayed in literature, film and TV, has remained our favorite outlaw, our preferred sharer of the wealth.
Even so, Ridley Scott’s and Brian Helgeland’s new take on Great Britain‘s most popular heroic legend — the centuries-old tale of the deadly archer/rebel and his merry men, defying authority, robbing the rich and rewarding the poor — is unusual.
It’s a film of stunning, gorgeous imagery and bloody, deadly action, a vast panorama of lush landscapes erupting into hellish violence and sudden death, with arrows raining down from the trees and the cliffs and scything through flesh, of swords hacking off limbs, and warriors dying in mud, while aristocrats frolic and commoners suffer. It has a stern, emotionally scarred, death-dealing Robin (Crowe), some lusty Merry Men, an angry Maid Marian (here “Marion”), and some villains you can cheerfully hate.
It’s as much a visionary triumph of the magic of movies, as some of Scott‘s best previous pictures: whether set in the nightmarish future (Alien or Blade Runner), the stormy present or near-present (Thelma and Louise or Black Hawk Down), or the distant, perilous past (Gladiator). Indeed, with its snippets of Richard the Lionheart at war, shown at the beginning of the show, Robin Hood links right up to Scott’s underrated masterpiece, (the uncut) Kingdom of Heaven. It becomes in some ways the flipside of that medieval legend of bloody history and conflict.
But Scott’s movie is more difficult, more complex, than any standard swashbuckler or tale of the Hood. Russell Crowe, the movie’s Robin, and Ridley’s most frequent star/collaborator, is a surlier, less buoyant, less charming and limber movie Robin Hood than either Flynn or Fairbanks – to name two of the sexiest archers of movie yore. And Cate Blanchett may be the toughest, dourest and least maidenly Maid Marian (here “Marion”) ever.
But the actors can afford to take risks, since Scott and his company and his high tech experts are taking them too.
The 12th century world and the people that Scott has set down around his anachronistic hero and heroine becomes a vast paradise and battleground of verdant greensward, dense forest, boisterous villages full of rustic peasants and unkempt revelers, ocean-side cliffs dropping sheerly down to wave-whipped beaches suddenly seething with warriors, and castles towering in stony grandeur or ruin against the sky, all shown in compositions that remind you irresistibly of not just of the younger Breughel (who might have painted those rowdy villages), but of other masterpieces of 15th century Dutch landscape and realist painting somehow set to life. It also becomes so vivid a celebration of our dreams of the classical England and of English history, that the background of “Robin Hood” is a dominating presence all by itself.
This new kingdom of heaven and hell that Scott has wrought — working with a superb company that includes production designer Arthur Max, cinematographer John Mathieson, costume designer Janty Yates, composer Marc Streitenfeld and lots of others — lends extra color, bite and reality to the film’s roiling gallery of heroes and ladies, simple folk and royalty, villains and killers (the bad bunch is led by Mark Strong as turncoat Godfrey and Oscar Isaac as King John).
Robin Hood has its flaws — of drama, of emphasis or of too much violence. And lots of critics have been quick to point them out. But this is a truly beautiful movie. And its mix of visual grandeur, jolting violence, and heroic balladry — the way Robin Hood brings both the historic past and the popular legendry to life — comprise the show’s best defense against charges of pretension or confusion, or of travesties of history and of well-loved movie legends.
Crowe is one of the smartest of today’s action-worthy leading men, and he plays Robin with a wary gaze, a steady bow-hand and quick reflexes, as if he actually were a soldier facing long odds in a dangerous world. Crowe is one of the few star hunk movie actors who’s also quite willing to play roles that make him look overweight, physically maladroit, intellectually fallible, emotionally vulnerable, fat and sloppy –as long as they’re great roles as in The Insider and A Beautiful Mind — and I think that actually helps him in movies like this, when he’s playing a kind of historical super-hero like Robin. You can either be a Sean Connery, a Michael Caine or a Clint Eastwood, and play action heroes by not taking the heroics quite too seriously, or you can play it straight like Matt Damon and Daniel Craig, or you can be like Crowe, and make the heroism look hard and dearly-bought.
He has an unusually fine cast behind him, and Helgeland (who wrote L. A. Confidential, of course, but also, on the minus side, committed Payback) has given them all parts and lines they don’t have to mangle or embroider or be ashamed to say.
There are a lot of gazillion dollar movies that don’t give us anything but intellectual heartburn. And there comes a time when we movie critics, especially, have to stop acting as financial advisors, and audience analysts, two jobs in which we should feel uncomfortable in any case (especially these days), and give the Ridley Scotts of the industry, however reckless they may seem and however many hundreds of millions they spend, their due — just as we and our forebears should have cut slack to such notorious budget-busters, over-reachers and over-perfectionists in their day as D. W. Griffith, Erich Von Stroheim and Francis Coppola. What better way to rob from the rich and give to the poor, than to make a really good expensive spectacular left-wing movie like this? Especially if it may even return its investment?
After all, as Dylan says, to live outside the law, you must be honest. (I know you always say that you agree. So, where are you tonight, Sweet Marie?)