May 14 2010 12:00 AM

Russell Crowe plays an older outlaw with different priorities

2374_GW_D005_Z7J8498R.jpgEmerald-green tights, sneering sheriffs and
damsels-in-distress have no place in director Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood,”
which is the latest in an ever-growing series of epics that “re-imagine” a
familiar tale. Brian Helgeland’s screenplay takes Robin — or Robin Longstride,
as he is known here — back to his final days in The Crusades and into his first
visit to Nottingham, where he will meet many of the characters who will become
his band of Merry Men.

It’s an idea ripe with possibilities. Unfortunately, it’s
also the same idea the creators of the excellent BBC “Robin Hood” series had
several years ago, and they had more fun with it. Although Scott’s saga is
extremely well-crafted and often exciting, it somehow never quite catches fire
to become the pulse-pounding, vigorous romantic adventure it aspires to be.

There’s another odd element that’s difficult to overlook as
well: This is supposed to be an “origin story,” but Robin is being portrayed by
46-year-old Russell Crowe. Make no mistake: Crowe looks perfectly fit and
suitably savage on the battlefield. Even so, seeing a Robin Hood with flecks of
gray in his beard is a peculiar sight.

This “Robin” layers on the spectacular battle scenes Scott
is justifiably famous for staging and it finds an offbeat angle on the
relationship between Robin and Marian (Cate Blanchett), who is portrayed here
as a lonely, feisty wife whose husband went to battle with King Richard a
decade ago and has yet to return. It also shuffles the deck as far as
traditional Robin Hood lore goes, surrounding the story with more historical
detail — particularly the tensions between England and France in the 12th
century — and sidestepping most of the “rob from the rich and give to the poor”
theme. (Perhaps after Barack Obama’s hot-button “spread the wealth around”
quote that idea is considered too touchy.)

2374_D044_00146R.jpgHelgeland’s story unfolds in an England in which the farmers
and “barons” of the north are almost literally being taxed to death, with the
revenue going to fund a seemingly endless war in a far-off land. “We’re not
mutton to be made into soup by your butchers!” one nearly penniless nobleman
gripes to a tax collector; sounds like a possible slogan for the Tea Party’s
next bumper sticker.

Yet Prince John (Oscar Isaac) turns a deaf ear to his countrymen’s
complaints and the dire warnings of his mother (Eileen Atkins), while literally
sleeping with the enemy, in this case, the saucy French princess, Isabella (Lea
Seydoux). John also foolishly puts his trust in odious assistant, Godfrey (Mark
Strong), who aids England when he’s in the public eye and France whenever it’s
potentially profitable. Godfrey would like nothing more than for Britain to
fall into civil war, thus leaving it wide open for an invasion from his French

2374_D074_00038R.jpgAnd where does Robin Hood fit into all this? Well, he’s just
arrived in Nottingham to return an heirloom sword to Sir Walter Loxley (Max von
Sydow), father-in-law of Marian, who has been holding the family estate
together. Touring Nottingham with Marian, Robin quickly becomes aware of the
injustice all around. Where are all the cattle and mutton this pastoral
paradise should have? “Sold, eaten, stolen, traded,” Marian reports, and the
royal foot-soldiers just keep coming back for more.

Taking the words on the hilt of the Loxley clan’s sword as
his motto — Rise And Rise Again Until Lambs Become Lions — Robin organizes a
revolt against the tyranny of the taxmen and, with help from outcast royal
advisor, William Marshal (William Hurt), a stand against the forces of France
as well. Marian goes into battle, too, which is hardly a shock when you
consider how frequently Scott’s films have celebrated feminine strength
(“Alien,” “Thelma & Louise,’ “G.I. Jane”).

Don’t expect a frolic in the ravishingly robust Technicolor
forests of Errol Flynn’s “Robin Hood” or something lighthearted, along the
lines of Kevin Costner’s much-maligned 1991 blockbuster (known in some circles as Robin of Malibu). Scott’s “Hood” is
awash in muddy, bloody earthiness and subdued shades that mirror its mostly
mature, troubled characters.

Crowe brings a convincing gravity and deep-seated determination to Robin (who has been burdened here with a disturbing repressed memory from childhood, a la The Prince of Tides) and there's an appealing note of wary friction and friskiness in his encounters with Marian; hopefully, someone will one day re-team Crowe and Blanchett in a smart romantic comedy. Hurt is quietly commanding, while Strong is suitably loathsome in an intriguing role as a devilish double-agent. Mark Addy, as a beekeeping Friar Tuck, provides some amusing comic asides.

It’s an interesting perspective on the material, and an entertaining film, although this “Robin Hood” doesn’t seem destined to
become anyone’s favorite trip through Sherwood Forest.