1199. As Richard The Lionheart (Danny Huston) returns from the Third Crusade, both he and his right-hand man, Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), are slain in France. It’s left to one of their archers, Robin Longstride (Crowe), to return Richard’s crown to London and Loxley’s sword to Nottingham. There, compelled to pose as Loxley, Longstride finds himself embroiled in Plantagenet politics — and has to tackle a French plot abetted by the traitorous Sir Godfrey (Strong)…
When was the last time you saw a big, action-packed movie that felt like it belonged in its summer-release slot yet didn’t treat you like a 13 year-old boy? That had a coherent story, a zinging script, a confident edit, restrained use of visual effects and didn’t stink like an extended advert for its own merchandise? Last year’s Public Enemies doesn’t count; that was only a ‘summer movie’ by virtue of a bizarre scheduling brain-fart. Which leaves us with… The Dark Knight.
Now, comparing Rid ’n’ Russ’ bold take on the Robin Hood legend with Christopher Nolan’s towering crime epic is perilous; rather too much expectation inflation. But it really does feel like this is the first time since that movie that we’ve managed to get the sunshine without the lollipops. If you will.
Perhaps a more sober comparison is Sherlock Holmes. Both films take an icon on the fringes of fiction (we’d wager many think Holmes is as historical a character as Hood), both offer a fresh spin (no mean feat in either case), and both cast Mark Strong as the villain who isn’t the villain — just as he wasn’t Holmes’ Moriarty, here he is neither Prince John nor The Sheriff Of Nottingham… or even Guy Of Gisborne, poor chap.
There’s one more Holmes/Hood similiarity: they’re both… fun. Oh yes. For all the blah of ‘Gladiator with bows’ (guilty as charged), the fifth Crowe-Scott collaboration is a much airier affair, the one-time Maximus here employing more of the twinkle we saw in Master And Commander or State Of Play than the scowl that so often defines his work.
Crowe’s Robin is dignified, assured, and his only flaw is his tactless honesty — yielding one very amusing visual punchline. Yet he’s not humourless or simmering with bloody, vengeful intent. Rather, dumped via a well-handled plot contrivance (which has a strangely satisfying Sommersby vibe) into the sticky web of late 12th-century aristo-politics, Robin’s the bluff, simple-but-not-stupid yeoman with bluff, simple ideals: “Honest, brave and naive. There’s an Englishman,” notes King Richard (Danny Huston) handily.
But for the big laughs you do have to look elsewhere. The three Merry Men — never referred to as such, thankfully — wisecrack accordingly, and there’s a true sense of bonhomie with Robin, aided no doubt by the fact that Kevin Durand, Alan Doyle and Scott Grimes are Crowe’s real-life pals.
Then there’s the bad guys, by which we mean the bad guys: Oscar Isaac’s Prince-then-King John and Matthew Macfadyen’s Sheriff Of Nottingham. Neither play as centrally antagonistic a role as Strong’s scarred, dark-eyed Sir Godfrey, but you’ll remember them more. Macfadyen’s Sheriff is hilariously sidelined (is it an accident that he resembles Alan Rickman’s 1991 showstealer, only shabbier?), and you can count his screentime in minutes on one hand, but he slithers like the best of them.
Isaac, though, is this Robin Hood-movie’s showstealer. Oozing with decadence and burning with ambition, his John is every inch an Edmund Blackadder, right down to those tight, black curls and manicured facial hair. It’s a superb performance, containing the kind of deliciously sour detail you rarely see in a movie with a ‘family’ rating: after being interrupted in flagrante with a bit of “French pastry” by his mother, Eleanor Of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins), he responds to her lecture by dismissively plucking what we can only assume to be a pubic hair from his tongue.
Back-on-form scripter Brian Helgeland isn’t afraid to give John all the best lines, either. After Eleanor compares the new king’s punitive taxation policy to milking a dried teat he sneers, “Spare us your farming memories, mother. They’re not real, and I don’t understand them.” You’d cheer if you weren’t booing.
Unlike its hero, Robin Hood is by no means flawless. While the plot skews older, the action, right up to the roaring, climactic Dover-beach clash, is notably bloodless — that old rating compromise. The accents, meanwhile, suffer from Hollywood Drift (Crowe’s goes from Leeds to Sheffield via Edinburgh — although anything’s better than Kevin Costner’s “Notting-ham” drawl). It’s also worth noting that this is very much an ‘origin story’: by the time Robin and co. settle down in Sherwood to assume Sheriff-confounding duties, the credits roll. On the plus-side, though, it certainly leaves you wanting more. To further stretch the Batman comparisons, you could call it Robin Begins.
Grown-up but not too serious; action-packed but not juvenile… Not only is this the mullet-free Robin Hood movie we’ve been waiting decades for, it’s also Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe at their most entertaining since Gladiator.