One thing Hollywood has in spades is confidence. And Hollywood is pretty damn sure it knows better than you, me and every other non-celebrity type. That’s why Hollywood is always rewriting, recasting, remaking and test-screening the hell out everything under the sun. There’s nothing—from the prose of William Shakespeare to Heidi Montag’s breasts to actual historical fact—that the movie industry can’t improve upon. It’s why no film version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan has even remotely resembled its source material. And it’s why movie studios are currently putting a reboot up the ass of every movie you’ve ever watched. Liked the original Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate, Planet of the Apes, The Poseidon Adventure, The Pink Panther, A Nightmare on Elm Street? No you didn’t. They sucked, so Hollywood was kind enough to remake them.
In the crosshairs of Hollywood’s spit-shine machine this week? The legend of Robin Hood. Now, we all know about Robin Hood and his Merry Men. We’ve heard the tale for generations: the noble, tights-wearing English hero who runs around Sherwood Forest robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Having endured as a piece of popular folklore since the 1400s, it’s clearly a crap story in need of some serious Hollywood enhancement.
Hollywood’s newest take on Robin Hood takes its cue from the 2005 superhero reboot Batman Begins. Like Batman Begins, Robin Hood presses the reset button, taking us further back in time and giving us a whole new origin story for the hero we only thought we knew.
For this new and improved version, our hero is Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe), a lowly archer in service to King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston). In this, Robin Hood corrects at least one major historical flaw in the traditional story. “Good” King Richard—the lordly savior of the original tale—was kind of a jerk. He wasted an awful lot of years on his bloody Crusades, slaughtered countless innocent Muslims and basically bankrupted his country. Hewing somewhat closer to history, this film finds King Richard killed in France while sacking his way back home. Fearing anarchy and a long stay in a foreign land, Robin and his wartime compatriots Little John (Kevin Durand from “Lost”), Allan A’Dayle (singer-turned-actor Alan Doyle) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes, “ER”) make a break for Old Blighty.
On the way, they meet a group of knights who are transporting Richard’s crown back to its sovereign soil. Unfortunately, the knights have been ambushed by a traitorous English nobleman named Godfrey (Mark Strong, who last villained it up in Sherlock Holmes). Robin assumes the identity of the lead knight (one Sir Robert of Loxley by name) and pledges to return the crown. Before you can say “Isn’t this the plot to The Return of Martin Guerre?” our hero heads to Loxley’s home in Nottingham, where he meets up with the dead knight’s father (Max von Sydow) and widow, the Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett). Through it all, Crowe is slate-faced and dour, and his Merry Men are more like the Intermittently Upbeat Men—but everybody at least looks the part.
All in all, it’s an odd reassembling of the myth. Robin Hood wasn’t really Robert of Loxley, as is usually assumed, but an impostor who took his place and pretended to be married to the guy’s wife for tax purposes. And since we can’t possibly have a damsel-in-distress in these post-Sexual Revolution times, our Lady (née Maid) Marion is now a butt-kicking babe who can shoe a horse, plow a field and wield a sword. Like most women in late-12th century England, she’s a mixture of Joan of Arc, Rosie the Riveter and Wonder Woman.
The changes don’t stop there, though. Gone is the archery contest with the iconic splitting arrow. Missing is the famous meeting between Robin Hood and Little John on the narrow bridge. Expunged is the whole “rob from the rich and give to the poor” thing. Now, Robin spends most of his time stopping a civil war stirred up by the nefarious Godfrey and rallying troops to fight against an invading French army. As a result, Robin Hood seems less interested in remaking Robin Hood and more interested in remaking Braveheart. Fortunately, screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, A Knight’s Tale, Payback) is proficient at penning epic action sequences and director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down) is adept at filming them. The French castle siege that opens the film is a whopper, and Scott occasionally recaptures the manly, blood-spattered energy that drove Gladiator.
If only the new story weren’t so ungainly. With its constantly evolving storylines and complicated political landscape, it’s a three-night mini-series crammed into two and a half hours. Part of the problem is that the script can’t settle on a villain. The Sheriff of Nottingham, this story’s usual foil, is relegated to the role of minor background character. Sleazy schemer Prince John vacillates between antagonist and protagonist—sometimes teaming up with Robin Hood, sometimes opposing him. In the end, everyone comes together under the “Yeah, but we all hate the French” banner, which at least gives us a major beachside battle to end on.
Robin Hood is a professional-grade effort. It looks like a million bucks ($200 million, to be precise). It’s got plenty of action. And it’s way less stupid than 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner. Purists should avoid it like the plague. But anyone looking for big-budget spectacle, historic pageantry and swinging swords will get their matinee’s worth.
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