My experience with the cinematic legend of Robin Hood is just modestly made up of clips from the Errol Flynn film, and that of the Prince of Thieves directed by Kevin Reynolds and starring Hollywood's It kid at that 90s moment Kevin Costner, a film memorable only for its Bryan Adams ballad that played during the end credits, Alan Rickman as a hammed version of the Sheriff of Nottingham, and that American accent. Then there's Disney's foxy animation, Sean Connery's veteran Robin Hood and Maid Marian that I caught on television, and a made-for-TV movie that hit the screens here titled Robin Hood with Patrick Bergin in the titular role, and Uma Thurman as a feisty Maid Marian.
The thing with legends is that there's enough bandwidth for different interpretations because there can be nothing definitive about it other than the underlying concept, which to the mythos is Robin of the Hood and his Merry Men's robbing of the rich to give to the poor, who have to put up with ever increasing taxes in England as ruled by well, an unpopular king whose identity depends on where the tale is set. In Brian Helgeland's story, it takes on epic proportions of political intrigue involving betrayal in the English court and a French king ever looking to conquer the English Isles through an insider set to incite an uprising and civil war before crossing the Channel with an army, and in some ways the opening resembles Ridley Scott's film of 10 years ago, Gladiator, which also starred Russell Crowe.
Beginning with one of the limited action sequences in the film (yes it's true this film's more talk than action), the premise can also be considered to follow up directly from Scott's earlier effort Kingdom of Heaven, which dealt with the Crusades. Here, King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) is leading his knights back on a retreat to England to reclaim his throne, and amongst his soldiering ranks are archers Robin Longstride (Crowe) and his men Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle) and Little John (Kevin Durand) with whom Robin befriends through a sleight of hand game, rather than the iconic meeting in Sherwood Forest through a challenge of skills at a river.
And like the Gladiator format, we see how Robin steps up to assist in the capture of castles and land, before a new coronation takes place which spells trouble eventually for Longstride as he goes up against a jealous monarch, who condemns Robin Hood's to an outlaw status in due course. But in the meantime, Robin Longstride decides to abandon the erratic King Richard, and not before long will stumble upon the mentioned huge conspiracy against his country. So it's up to the reluctant hero and his men to interfere and interrupt corrupt regimes with the very glossing of that involving religious leaders, plus crossing swords with chief villain and friend of Prince John (Oscar Isaac), Godfrey (Mark Strong).
So where's the usual nemesis the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen) you may say? He's still featured in the film albeit in a smaller role, and Helgeland's story being set in the formative years of Robin Hood means whatever we know of Sherwood Forest and the adventures of Robin and his Merry Men, has not even begun yet. This allows for Ridley Scott to bring his vision of the sword and sandals epic and apply it on this English legend and I think probably the first to feature the skilled archer using a warhammer charging into battle. Expect violence, though most happen off-screen. Compared to the last big budgeted Robin Hood film Prince of Thieves, Ridley Scott's vision and version is a lot grittier, with so much dirt and grim in every scene to highlight the impoverished conditions in the aftermath of the much funded Crusades, that it makes the other version look like a romp through a forested theme park with fancy pulley-lift rides.
Scott and Crowe is one of the enduring director-actor partnerships in Hollywood these days with this film marking the director's fourth consecutive collaboration (A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies and this) with Crowe, who seemed a little pudgy as a much older man in tights, though the finale did make him look the part a lot more. Since this is something of an origin story in itself, we see very little of his interaction with his motley crew which leaves plenty of room to do so in a follow up film, and the focus is on establishing Robin Longstride as a hero, exploring his past, and his romance with the widow (gasp!) Maid Marian, played by Cate Blanchett.
Yes, Maid Marion's married, and possesses plenty of spunk just like Uma Thurman's 1991 version, and a tinge like Eowyn from Lord of the Rings who's equally adapt with armours and weapons in battle. The Sheriff of Nottingham takes a backseat in the hall of infamy, and Mark Strong steps into the villainous lead, cementing himself as a dangerous stereotype in playing evil characters, here as an adviser who exploits the name of King John to stir trouble, dressed in a billowing black cape like Darth Vader, and has a half Joker-ish scarred mouth no thanks to Robin Hood. Oscar Isaac almost steals the show toward the end with his desperately comical turn as a King under siege, and luminaries such as William Hurt and Max von Sydow complete the star-studded lineup, with Mark Addy as Friar Tuck never failing to contribute some light hearted moments in the film.
And whatever you do, don't shortchange yourself by walking out of the cinema hall when the end credits start to play - you're treated to a stunning animated (and bloody too I may add) sequence that recounts the last 2 hours in reverse chronological order ending with the Crusades, and what more, aurally enjoy the hauntingly beautiful music by Marc Streitenfeld as well.