Monday, May 17, 2010

Robin Hood - No Tights

Matt Yglesias did not like the Ridley Scott-Russell Crowe-Cate Blanchett Robin Hood:
Wow. What a mess. Remember when Ridley Scott directed good movies? Among other things, this film features the bizarre decision to do an interpretation of Robin Hood who (a) is not called “Robin Hood,” (b) doesn’t steal from the rich to give to the poor, (c) doesn’t live in Sherwood Forest, and (d) doesn’t fight with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Instead you get a boring and historically confused account of the First Baron’s War.
No, I don't especially recall when Ridley Scott directed good movies -- Thelma and Louise was provocative and interesting, though it's been a while since I've watched it; American Gangster was quite good; Gladiator works so long as you take it as nothing more than a yarn; Alien was a very good monster movie. The rest of his films aren't especially praiseworthy.*

As to Robin Hood, sure it was a mess, but Yglesias does not appear to have followed the arc of the story as presented. The film currently in theaters is meant as a prequel to the more familiar Robin Hood tales -- this film closes with Robin Hood's banishment to the forest with his band of outlaw fighters, with King John's duplicitous consolidation of power, and with the Sheriff's rise as a sleazy enforcer of the king's will. By the film's end, we have been clearly and properly introduced to "Robin," and we know which names apply and which do not. Playing with names and identities has always been a central part of the Robin Hood lore, so to say it is "bizarre" in this film is, well, bizarre.

It's a breezy history, albeit not played for laughs, stitched to a fable we have seen in films plenty of times before. That is, it is trying to stir legend and history together in an interesting way, and that's going to involve some compromises. People should take care what they ask for when they demand (implicitly or explicitly) historical accuracy from films: to the extent it was the setting of dramatic stories, England in 1200 was heavy on "will she survive childbirth," "will these remaining teeth I have last another few months," courtly intrigue (dear gawd there's no shortage of that set to film), and comparatively light on visually compelling feats of heroic derring-do. I suspect there's an interesting and accurate film adaptation of the events surrounding King John and the Magna Carta waiting to made, but it's only a suspicion. If told accurately, it might be as dull as dirt.

This version is trying to say something novel about these tales and the characters, and I give it credit for that. Rick Groen apparently wanted to see a bigger-budget re-hash of Robin Hood films he has already seen, those that
always, beneath the cutesy lesson in social democracy and the chivalrous romance with milk-skinned Marions and the delicious sight (to some) of men in tights, the lads, along with the viewers, were there to have a rollicking good time. The arrows were straight, but the tale was designed to bend towards kick-ass fun. Until now. Damned if those dual spoilsports, the gladiatorial director Ridley Scott reteamed with his portly** star Russell Crowe, haven't drained every drop of merriment right out of the myth.
It's not clear why the film needed to be "merry;" it is clear that apart from a few light-hearted moments, the film was not trying for "merry," and therefore isn't fruitfully evaluated on whether it hits that mark.

The following viewers should be wary of this film: those hoping for a wacky take on the Robin Hood legend; those longing for a version in which Russell Crowe looks as though he has not eaten in six weeks; those hoping to see 13th century England portrayed with exacting historical verisimilitude; those looking for a remake of any of the existing Robin Hood films.

Others might find something to like, though for all I've said in its defense here, I caution the viewer against expecting too much. I thought it was at least as interesting as Gladiator in its balancing of legend and history, which isn't saying much. It was a hell of a lot better than Avatar or Congo, which is saying even less.

* I add one exception: Blade Runner was one of the finest films ever made in exactly the same way that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy was among the best books ever written. All must agree to this whether or not we believe it, lest we incur the endlessly hectoring wrath of a subculture of inexhaustible nerds who will not abide disagreements. For the record: Blade Runner and Tolkien's trilogy are superb, masterful, superlative, and capital-G Great.

** Portly? Jeebus. Does every actor have to look like Don Cheadle after a crash diet? Russell Crowe looks just fine in this film. Moreover, his body matches the character he's meant to portray -- an older English warrior who has seen a lot of death and pain.

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