MOVIE REVIEW: Robin Hood

ROBIN HOOD-- 4 STARS

When actors and directors frequently collaborate together on films, audiences compare their works side-by-side against each other.  It's inevitable and sometimes unfortunate.  Most people expect lightning in a bottle twice or expect everything they do to be as good as it was the first time around.  Ask Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese.  For every Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas, there's The King of Comedy.  Unfair comparisons are made because each of the films are meant to be totally different works.  Even Scorsese's latest muse, Leonardo DiCaprio has to try and make Shutter Island and The Aviator live up to The Departed.  

The same thing happens to two-time Academy Award winner Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott.  Not that Russell doesn't have the same thing going with Ron Howard where Cinderella Man can't live up to A Beautiful Mind, but, ten years ago, Gladiator was a colossal critical and financial success, reinvigorating the swords-and-sandals epic and winning the Best Picture Oscar.  Since then, Crowe and Scott have collaborated on four films, but with nowhere near the success of that first big hit.  2006's A Good Year was an atrocious flop of an Italian romance film that now makes Letters to Juliet look like Audrey Hepburn's Roman Holiday.  American Gangster was an underappreciated epic in its own right that very few people went out to see.  They last collaborated on the blink-and-you-miss-it terrorism thriller Body of Lies with Leonardo DiCaprio, where even their combined star power couldn't sell the movie.

That chronology brings us to Robin Hood.  Those who will read other reviews or stories on how the movie was made will learn that this film started out as a script entitled Nottingham where the origin and legend of Robin Hood was going to be told through the point-of-view of the Sheriff of Nottingham.  It was going to play as almost a quasi-"whodunit" mystery investigating the crimes of a hooded bandit, with the twist that Russell Crowe was set to play the dual role of Robin Hood and the Sheriff, where the two characters were going to end up being brothers or even the same person.

I like the intriguing idea of seeing the story through the Sheriff's perspective of the great rivalry, but am very glad they didn't try to make that movie.  It would have been very difficult to buy that twist or watch the action in a dual-personality mystery pace.  Save those kind of trippy movies for Christopher Nolan of Memento, Insomnia, and the upcoming Inception.  It would also be pathetic to watch any Sheriff of Nottingham try to live up to the deliciously evil Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.  Give me a Robin Hood that can beat the crap out of the Kevin Costner hero I grew up wearing a VHS tape out on and I'm good to go. 

Russell Crowe's Robin Hood can do just that, because after all, he's Russell Crowe.  The movie itself was rewritten by hit-or-miss Hollywood script ace Brian Helgeland (an Oscar winner for L.A. Confidential in the same year he was a Razzie winner for Kevin Costner bomb The Postman)

as an origin story to how the legendary rogue hero came to be.  We first follow his efforts as an ace archer, Robin Longstride, with his buddies fighting under King Richard the Lionheart (Wolverine's Danny Huston) in the Crusades in France.  When the Lionheart dies in battle, the journey to return to crown to his successor, King John (an excellently vain Oscar Isaac) forces Robin and his men into the role of safeguarding the crown's trip back to England, while dodging the turncoat attempts of the ruthless Godfrey (recent go-to villain actor Mark Strong from Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass, and the upcoming Green Lantern next summer), who's hot on their trail and secretly working for the French.

After returning home to England and delivering the crown, Robin fulfills a dying knight's wish from the end of the Crusades to deliver home his family sword to his father and wife.  That father is the old and blind Sir Walter Loxley (the venerable Max von Sydow) and the wife, now widow, is Lady Marion Loxley (Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett).  They oversee the village of Nottingham, which has fallen under tough times from the departed men at war and the cash-strapped monarchy overtaxing their citizens, even with the infusion of a strong-willed and defiant new town preacher, Friar Tuck (A Knight's Tale's Mark Addy).  Walter persuades Robin to stay and impersonate his deceased son in order to protect his lands from being taken away.  His loyal men, including not-so Little John (Kevin Durand) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), come along and soon make Nottingham a comfortable home where Robin earns the respect of the town and begins to win over his pretend wife Marion.  Nonetheless, the Godfrey-led French infiltration force, impending invasion, and bumbling king present different challenging roadblocks to peace and success that force everyone into action.

And, boy, is there action and sweeping scale!  The climactic beach battle scene alone, seen in so many previews, is incredibly impressive, along with the dynamic cinematography to showcase the archery feats of our hero and his men.  Even the Irish-influenced score by Ridley Scott loyalist and newcomer Marc Streitenfeld will get your heart stirring and your foot tapping at the same time.  To me, Robin Hood overcomes its thrown-together production changes and delivers solid summer entertainment.  I arguably enjoyed myself more walking out of this than I did Iron Man 2, and that's hard to do.   I think it breaks the collaboration cold streak between Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott, even if I thought it was broken already by American Gangster.  Sure, it's not going to be Gladiator, gross $200+ million dollars, and have the staying power to go on to win the Oscar, but this movie succeeded where it was supposed to fail.  I admire the effort of the great production and it could be the start of a new franchise.

LESSON #1: LIVE A BRAVE AND HONEST LIFE AND YOU WILL EARN RESPECT-- Robin Longstride has a scene in the movie where he shows the moxie and bravery of telling King Richard the Lionheart, to his face, that his people will not respect him for his Crusades, no matter what success they supposedly brought.  The King respects his opinion as honest and not defiant and questions why so few others did not have his courage to speak the truth.  Ballsy, but it rings true.  No one likes a sugarcoater or a yes-man.  No one respects the Dwight Schrutes of the world.  Be upfront and be honest, even when it's not something the other person wants to hear.  They may not like what you have to say, but they will respect you for your bravery and honesty.

LESSON #2: KEEP YOUR PROMISES AND YOU WILL BE REWARDED-- Call it karma or whatever you like, but the saying goes that a man is only as good as his word.  Robin's efforts to fulfill a promise he made to a dying stranger led him to a destiny and a place that changed and improved his life.  Robin could have let the man's wishes die with him.  He could have ignored it or refused what it brought him upon arriving in Nottingham, but he didn't.  He possessed the honor to do the right thing and see his promises to the end.  In his words, he couldn't answer "good luck with bad grace."  Today, "I promise..." is thrown around a great deal to start sentences of oaths people won't keep, let alone see through to the finish, and then some.  I'd like to think that chivalry is not dead, but it's tough to find nowadays.

LESSON #3: WHEN SOCIETY FAILS YOU, THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH TAKING MATTERS INTO YOUR OWN HANDS TO HELP THOSE IN NEED-- This is the quintessential ideal of every previous incarnation of the Robin Hood legend, and it's still very evident here in this newest interpretation.  Whether it's making your own mead from honey when other means are wrestled away from you, taking grain from the royal church to plant local fields in desperate times, or the classic and rousing steal-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor Robin Hood mentality, that level of vigilante justice comes from times when society (in this case and tax-ruthless King John) fails its people.  Rather than take the punishment lying down, there are those select few who rise up and challenge authority.  Some are called rebels, but most we remember as heroes.  Don't miss your chance to be that hero when you have the means to help others.