Sep 172010
 

The tale of Robin Hood is a tale that has been told the world over, and has been loved the world over, by adults and children alike, because the story of a dashing outlaw, refusing to live under oppression, and stealing from the rich to give to the poor, is a noble, moral, and simple tale, with a fair bit of action and intrigue; just as director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) hoped his retelling of the story would be.

It begins, as many Robin Hood stories do, near the close of the Third Crusade (in the late 12th century), where a common archer named Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe, Gladiator), and the men he fights alongside, are following Richard the Lionheart into battle; ransacking one last French castle to complete their trip back to England; when Richard is quickly and surprisingly slain; putting a bit of a downer on the triumphant return, and placing the future of England in jeopardy.

So in order to maintain a fully functional monarchy, a party of knights are immediately dispatched to take Richard’s crown to his brother John (Oscar Isaac, Body of Lies), but are ambushed by a nobleman named of Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong, Kick-Ass); who has pledged allegiance to The King of France and plans on helping him usurp the throne in England, and take power for himself.

But just as Godfrey’s team are finishing off the last of the English knights, they are chased off by Robin and a handful of soldiers; who by this point are walking home alone (having deserted the main army), and quickly dream up a get-rich-quick scheme that involves taking the identity of the slain knights, their uniforms, and possessions, transporting the crown back to England, and becoming a good deal richer in the process.

They make it back to England, and witness the coronation of Richard’s younger brother John, but then, rather than going home, they travel to Nottingham; where Robin vowed he would return a sword to the father of the dying knight he was impersonating (Robert Loxley); and are promptly welcomed in by by the Loxley family.

Loxley’s father Walter (Max Von Sydow, Shutter Island), obviously quizzes him about the sword, and asks him to continue to impersonate his son; as he’s afraid that, without Roberts return, King John will attempt to take his land, and he will be unable to stop him; something that Robert’s widow Marion (Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth) heavily disapproves of, but goes along with as she thinks it may be the best thing for her people.

On a larger scale, whilst Robin is attempting to fit in and play the family man, Godfrey is busy stirring up trouble; convincing the new King (who has royally annoyed the entire country himself, by failing to show an ounce of grief regarding his brother’s death, and imposing a ridiculous and unsurmountable amount of tax on just about everyone) that his closest and best advisors are worthless and should be banished, allowed French soldiers to land on English soil, and joined them in ransacking enough towns (disguised as troops loyal to John) so as to place the country on the cusp of civil war.

And that’s the basic premise of the story; leaving Godfrey to manipulate and undermine King John, in order to plant the seeds for a French invasion of England, whilst Robin attempts to assume the identity of the deceased noble Robert Loxley; doing much less of the robbing from the rich and giving to the poor than most fans of the legend, and previous tellings of the story, are used to; but playing a bigger part in the history of England, as he not only calls for civil rights, but actively attempts to stop Godfrey, and prevent England from falling into French hands.

So while this may be a Robin that few people will be familiar with; and one that sometimes plays a little fast and loose with historical accuracy (but then again what historical film doesn’t take a few liberties?); it’s nevertheless a compelling, and superbly broader, story than the simple tale of a few bandits stealing from an oppressive sheriff (which is what most Robin tales amount to), and one that was handled by both Russell Crowe, and Ridley Scott, excellently.

Ridley Scott is well known for making epic movies, and certainly delivers with this medieval  movie that had the scale of production compared by its cast to that of Ben Hur, and created a world that was appropriately aged, and gritty, but not without its sense of scale and spectacle; as it opens with a castle siege that’s perhaps just a little too reminiscent of (although not quite as good as) the opening battle from Gladiator (which remains Crowe and Scott’s most successful collaboration, and contains a number of shots and actions that are directly referenced), features several (purpose-built) castles and large set-pieces, and creates a huge civil war setting that sets the stage for a brilliantly crafted climactic battle.

And while the characters may not seem quite as well developed as the world in which they inhabit; often seeming like fairly two-dimensional cliches; they are still played fairly well, and seem to somehow fit within the context of the world, and its story; with Oscar Isaac’s King John being the prime example of a character who just about works, but seems more like a pantomime villain, or the live-action version of Disney’s Prince John, as his attempt at creating a rockstar/Richard Nixon type King is often over-the-top, and feels like a cheap imitation of Jonathan Rhys Meyers portrayal of Henry VIII in The Tudors.

Russell Crowe’s Robin also fits into the world well, but goes in the opposite direction of John, and comes across as a little flat, and somewhat dull; lacking all the flair and flamboyancy that is usually associated with the legendary outlaw; despite having no real problems, and being ultimately believable in the role; as even his accent (for which he caught an enormous amount of flack) is relatively good, and does sound a little off for people in the Nottingham area (having a twinge of Irish about it), but is generally pretty accurate for the area from which Robin originated.

The best performance from the principal cast however comes from Cate Blanchett, who’s utterly convincing as the Lady Marion; seeming strong willed and resistant to allowing Robin into her home (effectively managing to hold her own onscreen with Crowe), but eventually beginning to warm to the famed outlaw; and whilst the supporting cast (which includes names such as Dark Angel’s Kevin Durand, and The Good Sheperd’s William Hurt) are all consistent and fitting, their performances aren’t overly memorable.

So in the end, Ridley Scott’s version of Robin Hood definitely isn’t what most people were expecting, and is certainly not just a rehash of what’s gone before; it’s a really different and original tale of Robin Hood, and is really a Robin Hood movie in name only; as the plot, and epic style of action, gives it much more in common with Mel Gibson’s Braveheart; a Medieval civil war movie that’s about freedom, civil rights, and defending your country.

It’s a captivating tale (and one that probably would have fared better if the characters names were changed, and people didn’t go in with so many pre-conceived ideas about the story), but one that does mess with the historical accuracy, contains characters that aren’t totally believable or engrossing, and although it features some large battles and great action, doesn’t really feel like it gets going until the closing few minutes; something that’s due in large part to those pesky pre-conceived notions of Robin, yet instantly makes viewers want to watch the sequel.

Picture:

More accurate and faithful than the historical aspects however is Robin Hood’s video quality; which features superb textures, sharp and impressive levels of fine detail, and accurate representation of the film’s mostly earthy colour palette (where the mostly dull greens and browns look suitably natural, and help to place the film in the time period).

The contrast and black levels are also spot-on; with the contrast ensuring that certain colours pop where they should, and blacks remaining suitably deep and impressive; and combining with the high level of detail, textures, and strong colour representation, to create a transfer that gives no real cause to disappoint fans of the film, and bodes very well for the Blu-ray release.

Audio:

Even more impressive is Robin Hood’s sound; which comes by way of a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, and provides for a very strong and immersive experience; as the battle scenes sound simply fantastic (with an immeasurable number of arrows, swords, and carnage, audible through every channel), and are accompanied by some appropriate, weighty, and resounding, bass where needed.

Dialogue is also very clear, and never becomes distorted or washed out, no matter what else is happening onscreen, and just like the rest of the mix, is perfectly leveled, perfectly prioritized, and perfectly positioned, as are the ambient effects; of which there are plenty, that can often be heard emanating from the rear channels.

Leveling also happens to be one of the mixes strongest points (and is something that many movies can’t get quite right; such as Public Enemies), and means that despite the film often going from very loud battle scenes to whisper quiet dialogue ones, there’s never any need for volume adjustment; something that, when accompanied by the positioning, clarity, and vigor, of the mix, means that Robin Hood has a truly engrossing audio track that’s just about as good as you’re likely to hear on DVD, and should sound fantastic on Blu-ray.

Extras:

At first glance the list of extras for the Robin Hood DVD appears to be a bit on the slim side; consisting of only a handful of deleted scenes (which are all extremely dull. and not worth the time it takes to play them), a marketing archive (featuring two trailers for the movie, and six different TV spots; which aren’t likely to thrill anyone but the film’s biggest fans), and a making of feature entitled Rise and Rise Again.

But Rise and Rise Again is an exceptionally well made making of featurette that’s handily broken up into three sections, runs for over an hour, and covers everything from the problems with the original script, how the different actors became involved, production and set design, kitting out the extras, and filming the climactic battle on the coast of Wales.

So while the marketing archive, and deleted scenes, may be generally useless, the making of is an informative, easy to watch, and pretty comprehensive, piece that’s well worth a look, and should easily entertain both casual watchers, and more serious fans.

The Bottom Line:

It’s obvious that the new version of Robin Hood isn’t for everyone; as Ridley Scott has created a fairly lengthy epic that not only distorts a number of historical facts and timelines, but, more importantly, tells a story that actually has very little to do with the legend of Robin Hood as the majority of the general public know it (inviting a good deal of criticism, from people expecting a more traditional, and predictable, telling); but should entertain fans of historical movies in the spirit of Kingdom of Heaven, and Braveheart.

For people who do like old-school historical epics, the DVD edition of Robin Hood is an excellent one; as it has very strong picture quality, brilliant audio, and while it may not have a huge quantity of special features, the superb making of featurette is certainly worth a look, and will provide plenty of background information for anyone who wants to know more about the film; boding well for the Blu-ray release.

Robin Hood was inevitably going to be compared to Gladiator, and it was just as inevitable that it wouldn’t end up anywhere near as good; yet it’s a movie that would probably be appreciated by many more people if it was taken as just a simple, fictional, medieval drama, that’s more akin to Braveheart than The Prince of Thieves; as it tells a large-scale civil war tale (complete with some good action, a decent enough story, and solid acting) that, disappointingly for many viewers, tells only the first chapter in the tale of Robin Hood (much in the way the Unbreakable told only the first chapter in a superhero film); namely how he became the famed outlaw, and not what he did once his famed outlaw status was established.

Ridley and Russell have made a version of Robin Hood that’s far from what most people were expecting, but impressive and ambitious in terms of scale, and direction, and should entertain fans of large-scale historical epics, if not all fans of the classic Robin Hood stories. It’s a DVD that’s certainly worth a look, but one that’s it’s probably best to rent before you buy, as it’s a film that has its merits and pitfalls, and is likely to continue to divide audiences for quite some time.