Rise and Rise Again Until Lambs Become Lions
** SPOILERS **
WHERE THE FUCK IS AZEEM?! Oh also, where's the Robin Hood movie? When you call your movie "Robin Hood", one naturally expects to see Robin Hood. And Azeem. But seriously, where's Robin Hood?
Now, shall I have a fit that Robin Hood barely qualifies as a Robin Hood movie, more of a "prequel" of sorts? Shall I cross my arms and stick my lower lip out in a pout that the tried-and-true tenets of Robin Hood movies are missing; that Robin Hood lacks the expected moments we've seen over and over in various iterations: No quarterstaff fight between Robin and Little John, no archery tournament, no Robin maneuvering in Nottingham incognito as a beggar, no hearty swashbuckling, no Robin Hood and Little John walkin' through the forest, oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally, golly, what a day.
Should I take up arms over all of this? Nah, I don't care. I feel no umbrage. Robin Hood may not be Robin Hood, but it's a well-made, action-packed, historical epic by a master in fine form. Production design, costume design and special effects-wise, it's top notch. If you can find it within yourself to get past how Robin Hood is not a Robin Hood movie, there's quite a lot to enjoy. It also helps a lot if you happen to like the Crusades.
The main thing that becomes apparent in Robin Hood's first act is that even after releasing a three hour-plus Director's Cut on DVD, Sir Ridley Scott did not get the Crusades out of his system in Kingdom of Heaven. At the conclusion of Kingdom of Heaven, Orlando Bloom is living a quiet life in France after his Crusading days have ended, when King Richard the Lion Heart passes by and says hello on his way to the Holy Land. Robin Hood is a sequel of sorts, picking up 10 years later as Richard is making his way home to England from the Third Crusade (after up and quitting on retaking Jerusalem, I might add) via plundering France. (No mention is made of how Richard and King Phillip of France grew up "more than friends, closer than allies" and were flaming it up across Palestine.)
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves ended with King Richard (played by Sean Connery) returned to England and his throne. Robin Hood: Men in Tights ended the same way, with Richard played by Patrick Stewart. In Robin Hood, the Lion Heart never makes it back at all. According to Sir Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland's take on English history, Richard, played by Danny Huston, is killed by an arrow to the neck by a common French archer. Prior to that, we get to hang out with Richard the Lion Heart quite a bit for the first time I can recall in a movie. Not only is Richard a main character, even in death, he becomes sort of like Poochie, referenced constantly by his brother King John and their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (never expected to see her in a movie).
It's amusing to see how Robin Hood found ways to homage Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Matthew McFadyen plays the Sheriff of Nottingham (not even close to the main villain this time around) as an ineffectual stringy black-haired parody of the Sheriff Alan Rickman played. This Sheriff still hangs out with an old crone and still wants to stick his arrow in Maid Marion's quiver. Like in the last act of Prince of Thieves, Marion is nearly raped again (not by the Sheriff but by an evil Frenchman), only it's 2010 and Cate Blanchett's Marion can save herself and slay her would-be rapist, thank you very much. Duncan, the loyal blind servant of Lord Locksley and Kevin Costner's Robin Hood is absent here, but instead Max Von Sydow plays Sir Walter Loxley as a blind man at the end of his noble life. There's even a mop haired boy in the woods of Sherwood who bears more than a passing resemblance to that boy named Wolf in Prince of Thieves. (And yet, there's no Azeem approximation to be found...)
Russell Crowe's take on the Robin Hood character gives us Robin Longstride, an orphaned archer in King Richard's Crusader army. As Robin Hood tells the tale, Crowe's Robin was admired by King Richard for his honesty. The Lion Heart gives Robin an attaboy for being honest and telling his king they are all godless murderers for the atrocities they committed in the Holy Land. Then Richard put Robin and his Merry Men - Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes), and Alan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle), all amusing but underused and ultimately forgettable in their roles - in the stocks, because he's the king and he doesn't really want to hear shit like that from the men. When Richard takes the ol' arrow to the neck, Robin sees this as a sign to book it back to England while the gettin's good.
Crowe's Robin is ever the opportunist. Everything he does, he does it for himself, and then later for the people. But mainly himself. Chancing upon the murdered Sir Loxley, who was charged with returning King Richard's crown back to London, Robin and his Merry Men pose as knights and later find themselves in Nottingham so that Robin can return Loxley's sword to his father. In events straight out of The Simpsons when the real Seymour Skinner returned to Springfield, blind old Sir Walter Loxley pulls an Agnes Skinner and accepts Robin (Tanzarian) as his ersatz prodigal son. He even pimps out Marion to him as his wife, for appearance's sake, of course. Next thing Robin knows, he's pretending to be Sir Robert Loxley, prancing around the village as a nobleman and falling for Blanchett's liberated Marion. Robin spends his nights watching her disrobe in her chambers while he literally lies with the dogs. Later, when Marion shows up at the climactic battle decked out in full armor, Robin scolds her: "For God's sake, Marion!"
For all his gruff toughness and manly stoicism, Crowe's Robin is not all that interesting. The dynamic of Robin Hood being a nobleman born who fights for the underclasses is lost in Robin Hood. Instead we have a poor archer pretending to be a nobleman and very slowly forming his worldview about fairness, decency and the symbiosis of loyalty a king owes his subjects and vice versa. To kick off act three, Von Sydow sits Crowe down and explains to him All The Stuff He's Been Wanting to Know: that his father was a common stonecutter but also a visionary who foresaw an England where the people own their land and are subject to but not pawns of the King... complete with a document ensuring such freedoms, some kind of charter...
For its first half, Robin Hood is very much about what detrimental political effect the Crusades had on England. Later, the picture becomes about France at war with England. But what Robin Hood is really about, which made my jaw drop, is the Magna Carta! I loved this. In fact, if Robin Hood were titled "The Magna Carta" and audiences went to see it and then discovered Robin Hood characters were in it, it might be less upsetting to people expecting a traditional Robin Hood movie. (But then, no summer audiences would flock to theaters to see "The Magna Carta".)
While Crowe's Robin is a bit of a bore, King John, played by Oscar Isaac, is by far the most entertaining character in Robin Hood. Fifteen years after Patrick McGoohan's magnificently evil king in Braveheart, there's now a worthy successor as best villainous British monarch in cinema. Isaac plays John as a seething, petulant, egotistical teeth-grinder, ecstatic to be sole ruler of the realm with Richard's demise. John also has the best taste in ladies, kicking his dowdy English wife aside to marry the incredibly hot Isabella of Angoulême (Léa Seydoux. Lordy!)
There's a terrific scene where King John meets with all of the noble lords about what an unjust king he is and steadfastly refuses to see things their way, until Robin shows up and provides reason enough for the King to acquiesce to his subjects' demands to sign a Magna Carta if they help him defeat the invading French. John is hilariously excited leading his men into war as Richard would have. ("It's my first war!") As Sir Ridley Scott would have it, Robin Hood and King John fought side by side to repel the French from England's shores, but when the French surrender to Robin and not John, John forgets his gratitude and freaks the fuck out in a jealous rage, burning the Magna Carta and telling all of his subjects to go fuck themselves. Fantastic. By the time King John declared Robin Hood "an outlaw!!" I was prepared to declare Isaac's King John the greatest evil British movie king since Braveheart's Longshanks. I'd want to see a Robin Hood sequel (you know, where it's actually a Robin Hood movie) just to watch King John (and Isabella) again.
Fulfilling Robin Hood's requirement for more traditional villainy, double crossing heavy Mark Strong is Godfrey, the boyhood friend of King John who agrees to sack the towns of Northern England pretending to collect taxes for John. He's really funneling it all to France to weaken England for King Phillip, paving the way for a French invasion of the British Isles. Strong does what dastardliness he can with what little character there is for him to play. He was much more fun last month when he was wondering why parents were throwing their children Kick-Ass parties.
I wish I got to watch Robin Hood premiere in Cannes. Robin Hood is so pro-England and anti-France, Sir Ridley must have been snickering in his seat the whole time during the opening night screening. Some of the funniest lines talk down to France, like when William Hurt reveals that Mark Strong is working for France and declares "his army is French!" with all the bile he can muster. Later before the climactic battle, King John peers over the cliff at the arriving French army on his shores and quips, "That's a lot of French!" In Robin Hood, there is no lack of unscrupulous Englishmen, including the King himself, but still, the worst thing you can be is a frog. Qu'est-ce que c'est?