Movie buffs can have a lot of fun playing the "what if" and "what the hell" games with this new version of Robin Hood's adventures, of which there have been countless variations in film or on TV since Douglas Fairbanks hippety-hopped through the Sherwood Forest of Southern California in 1922.
The most fondly remembered re-telling of the tale is the 1938 version starring Errol Flynn, and for good reason: It's the best, with its stunning color photography, operatic score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and heavy romanticism. Personally, I want my Robin Hood to be romantic. Anything else may be good, but by comparison, it's just historical fiction set at the turn of the 12th century.
This time out, 45-year old Russell Crowe ("State of Play
") is the man in tights. Apropos of nothing, that makes him older than Sean Connery was when he played an aging archer in "Robin and Marian." I quickly accepted Crowe in the role, despite his age, because he doesn't play the character like an imitation Flynn or Fairbanks. Where they overplayed shamelessly, Crowe underplays.
This Robin has just returned from fighting in the Third Crusade with Richard I. This well-loved English king, who could barely speak English, was killed by an arrow through the shoulder and neck. Richard's heart was buried in Normandy, his entrails where he died, and the rest of him in Anjou.
But back to Crowe. His Robin is quiet and thoughtful, described as loyal, honest and naive. After a French attack on the party returning Richard's crown to England, Robin assumes the identity of Sir Robert Loxley, the crown's courier, because he can travel faster as a knight than he can as a yeoman archer. Back home, he delivers the crown to Richard's brother, King John (Oscar Isaac, "Body of Lies
," who does enough overacting for Flynn and Fairbanks combined).
Another chore Robin has taken up is carrying the family sword of the real Robert Loxley, deceased, to his father, the blind Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow, "Shutter Island
"). Walter fears that if his son's death becomes known, his widow, Lady Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
"), won't be able to hang on to the family estate.
Since the late Sir Robert has been off fighting infidels for 10 years and no one remembers what he looked like, Sir Walter hires Robin to continue pretending to be his son. Marion isn't wild about it, but she doesn't get a vote (and won't for another 650 years or so).
Meanwhile, back in the Tower of London, King John decides to raise money for the crown by raising taxes. When it comes to Robin Hood stories, this is where we came in. The Barons in the north of the country object and decide to rebel. They march down from the north while King Philip plans to march in from the coast.
At a meeting of the Barons, which John attends, Robin shows up with a speech about the rights of man and all that Magna Carta stuff. The Barons agree to help John if he will grant the people certain inalienable rights, which he does while holding his crossed fingers behind his back.
Just when Brian Helgeland's ("Green Zone
") screenplay reaches the point where we start to feel some familiarity with films past, this one ends. That's OK, we remember what happens next.
The regular supporting cast is on hand, even if their characters are not filled in very well. We have Little John (Kevin Durand, "Legion
") and the others. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen, "Frost/Nixon
") is a cipher, with the role of chief villain going to Mark Strong ("Kick-Ass
"), Brit baddie actor du jour.
Directed by Ridley Scott ("Body of Lies
") with his usual larger-than-life spectacle, "Robin Hood" is by and large " mostly large " a lot of fun. It's extremely violent, but not at all bloody. I think the adjective for this kind of thing is "rousing." It's History Channel lite, so you can guess how lite that makes it. "Doug Bentin