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Straight Shooter

film_robinHOODpicCrowe, Scott, reteam for solid adventure in stirring 'Robin Hood'
Forget about those men in tights. Ridley Scott puts a gritty, topical spin on the romantic folk tale of the merry men of the greenwood in Robin Hood. It's not exactly a revisionist look at the familiar story, which, after all, has gone through centuries of permutations and updates, from heroic ballad to kids' classic to Hollywood and TV. Rather, Scott and scriptwriter Brian Helgeland craft an origin story about how failed leadership, ruinous taxation, and everlasting foreign wars turn a decent man into a rebel outlaw crusading for justice.

Although the Robin of balladry has been superimposed on various medieval eras as the legends evolve, he is most often associated with King Richard I, the Lionheart, in the late 12th Century. Modern versions place Robin in Sherwood Forest battling the depredations of Richard's villainous younger brother, John, while Richard is off on the Crusades. The Scott/Helgeland remix sticks more or less to this time period, but their Robin is introduced as a professional soldier in Richard's foreign army.

Russell Crowe brings his usual wry, thoughtful integrity and formidable presence to the role of Robin Longstride, an archer in Richard's vast legion plundering its way across France in 1199 on its way back home from a failed Crusade. A brawl with a fellow soldier called Little John (Kevin Durand) over a shell game—the kind of movie brawl that turns the opponents into fast friends for life—momentarily gains Robin the attention of King Richard (the wonderful Danny Huston), who worries over the state of his immortal soul after a lifetime of warmongering. As well he should; Richard is not fated to return to England.

Through an elaborate (but well-crafted) series of events, it falls to humble Robin to return Richard's crown to the grieving Queen Mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (the always reliable Eileen Atkins). She in turn grudgingly places it on the head of her least-favorite son, John (a deliciously oily, pretty and preening Oscar Isaacs). Fans of The Lion In Winter should enjoy another glimpse into the dysfunctional family dynamics of this most corrosive and colorful Plantagenet clan.

Robin is also charged to return the sword of Richard's aide, Robert of Loxley, to Loxley's elderly father, Sir Walter (the venerable Max von Sydow) in the northern shire of Nottingham. What's intended as a drive-by by Robin and his cronies-at-arms, John, Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and the minstrel Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle), quickly becomes a masquerade to prevent Loxley's lands, and his piquant and feisty widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett) from falling into the hands of the corrupt Sheriff (Matthew MacFadyen).

In a countryside taxed to the last soul, and man, to pay for Richard's war (fatherless war orphans run amok in Sherwood Forest like the Lost Boys), and ruinously tithed by the church, England is facing civil war. It's up to Robin to rally the northern barons to fight for a king they loathe against a marauding army of French invaders bent on conquest. Their reward will be forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta.

There's a lot of history here, most of it credible enough for Scott's purposes; his epic action sequences, sometimes less so. An unidentified 12th-Century substance explodes like a car bomb on contact with a blazing arrow during Richard's siege of a French castle; a fleet of French warships (one of Scott's most stirring visuals) deploy men and horses on the beach like medieval LSTs. And it's a shame that Robin spends most of the prolonged battle scenes in hand-to-hand combat. We'd much rather see the most fabled archer in history shooting arrows than wielding a sword like any other grunt.

Crowe and the poised Blanchett develop a nice, simmering camaraderie; would that Scott had cut short one of his battles to give them a proper love scene. But the story is persuasive and the look of the film impeccable, from the lush film_robin_hoodgreenwood to the large, utilitarian manor house interiors that look drafty, dusty, and hard to heat. This is one solid origin story that will deserve the sequel hinted at in the finale; it will be fun to see what they do next with this most enduring legend.

ROBIN HOOD ★★★

With Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, and Max von Sydow. Written by Brian Helgeland. Directed by Ridley Scott.

A Universal release. Rated PG-13. 140 minutes. Watch film trailer >>>

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