It's difficult to do a "Robin Hood" movie without making it a cover version of an earlier story. After all, we've been retelling this straight arrow's tale for at least 500 years. Still, the Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott edition is a more energetic and interesting entry than you might expect from this overpopulated genre.
This lighthearted drama feels like its own show, thanks to its strong, character-driven screenplay. Scott's natural tone is brooding and sardonic, and Crowe (squint, scowl, rumble, glare) is not the lightest of actors. They need material that lifts their spirits, and that's just what the story provides. Brian Helgeland, the screenwriter of "Mystic River" and "L.A. Confidential," elevates this film above its genre by taking the time to develop its characters and scenario. Quite a bit of time: "Robin Hood" runs a languorous, sometimes-laggy 140 minutes.
But patience has its rewards. Alongside impressive battle sequences, we get likable heroes, indelible villains and strong, feisty female characters. There's ribald humor without "Men in Tights" tomfoolery. Scott's films are usually high on technical polish but iffy in terms of emotional engagement. This one scores on all counts.
The film focuses on Robin's pre-outlaw days, the formative period when he became an anti-authoritarian individualist. We meet him during the crusade of King Richard the Lionhearted (Danny Huston, whose sense of entitlement and invulnerability only goes so far in battle). This is where the battle-weary archer acquired the particular set of skills and attitudes that make him a nightmare for the ruling class.
Fed up with medieval massacres, this modern-thinking maverick deserts, carrying a sword from the fallen Robert of Locksley back to his father, Walter (Max von Sydow), in Nottingham. The old nobleman asks Robin to impersonate the long-absent Robert in a scheme to thwart the rapacious tax collectors of newly elevated King John (Oscar Isaac, a licentious young snot operating on an entirely different wavelength of royal arrogance from Huston's). Robert's strong-willed widow, Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett), takes a while to warm up to this arrangement.
Meanwhile, the good people of Nottingham are harassed by the king's agents, and England is under threat from France, planning an invasion in reprisal for the late Richard's pillaging. It looks like Robin won't be retiring his bow and quiver after all.
"Robin Hood" borrows action riffs from "Braveheart," "Gladiator" and the Normandy Beach battle in "Saving Private Ryan," but it's primarily a smart, layered revisionist legend. There's a lot of well-written talk, which suits Crowe. The heavyset actor is no Errol Flynn in the athletics department; his deep, rumbling Britspeak is his strongest suit. He conveys the humanity under this warrior's hard-case exterior.
Helgeland finds contemporary political themes in the old story, and he slyly covers all the bases. There's a tone of populist anger in several scenes of ruinous taxation. Peaceniks will like Robin's speech about King Richard's "godless" slaughter of innocent Muslims. Blanchett's stalwart Marian is a 13th-century feminist. Amoral King John could have stepped straight from the microphones of a Senate Banking Committee hearing.
Viewers of every stripe will find something to cheer about here. And when Crowe leads his uprising, "Robin Hood" delivers change you can believe in.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186