If the mere mention of Robin Hood is enough to make you quiver (sorry, couldn’t resist) at the thought of hearing that Bryan Adams song again, fear not; this latest offering from the now inseparable Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe should outlaw any bad memories of Kevin Costner in dodgy dress.
Aside from that aforementioned 90s blockbuster (and its seemingly endless chart-topping soundtrack), there’s been a long list of big screen reincarnations of the Sherwood Forest legend.
Errol Flynn earned his tights in the 1938 Oscar-winning Adventures of Robin Hood; the tale later got a comic makeover in Men In Tights, and Disney even had a go at casting a fox as Robin in its animated version. Add to that numerous television series and you can’t help but wonder if there’s any corner of Sherwood left to explore.
But thank Friar Tuck that a reworked script under the direction of Sir Ridley and a more mature Robin played by Crowe proves a winning formula. This latest reinvention of the well-worn story throws up some great new angles and a bit of tweaking and realignment of the main characters leaves the way open to develop a more interesting plot.
In this version, King Richard (Danny Huston) isn’t quite the ‘Lionheart’ we all love and know, and when we first meet Robin Longstride he is not on the run from the Sheriff, foraging around with his merry men in the forest. No, he’s making an honest living as an archer in the king’s army, fighting the French en route back to 12th century England after the king’s Holy Land crusade.
When Richard is killed, it’s up to Robin to return the crown to England before taking himself to Nottingham on a personal mission, to keep his promise to a dying soldier. But while there, Robin – who is accompanied by his not-yet band of merry men (cue Little John and Will Scarlett) – gets drawn into helping the Loxley family fight back against the iron rule of the town’s hated sheriff (Matthew Macfadyen), before things take a turn for the worse with a traitor-led revolt against the crown.
If you happen to be among the sceptics that raised their eyebrows at the more ‘mature’ casting of Crowe, and Cate Blanchett as Marion, the somewhat older maid, you may be pleasantly surprised. Certainly the idea of Maximus swashbuckling his way around Nottingham seemed to require quite a leap of imagination, but actually the end result is a much more believable and sympathetic character. Blanchett too brings gravitas to her role, shrugging off the damsel in distress stereotype for a stoical, and more thoughtful portrayal of Marion, with gentleness that betrays her accomplished acting credentials.
In fact, the cast overall is impressive; oft-portrayed ‘hard man’ Mark Strong makes a wonderful baddie as plotting traitor Godfrey, a new spin on the Guy of Gisbourne character, and Matthew Macfadyen as the sleazy, self-serving Sheriff of Nottingham pokes fun at the sex symbol status he earned during his turn as Mr Darcy. William Hurt as loyal subject Marshal also brings his own authority to the mix, and Max von Sydow as Sir Walter Loxley is also worth a mention. But King John (played by Oscar Isaac) steals the limelight on more than one occasion with his one-liner put downs and wonderfully conceited behaviour.
Screenwriter Brian Helgeland uses lots of little footnotes associated with the well-known folklore and weaves them through the plot so cleverly that while they feel familiar to us, they’re used to update the tale and lift it out of the rut it’s been stuck in. There are also some lovely light moments to raise a few chuckles, most notably from that merry old monk Friar Tuck, played by Mark Addy, who discovers that bees can come in pretty handy in a fight.
But the great thing is, there are enough rough edges to stop it from descending into childish farce and, of course, there are plenty of the battle scenes you’d expect from the man responsible for Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, but with a little less blood and brutality for it to keep its family-friendly certificate.
And yes, in case any of you are wondering, there is even the slow-mo arrow shot which for a moment may make you grimace at the thought of Kevin Costner in tights again, but perhaps that is a deliberate little tongue-in-cheek gesture on Sir Ridley’s part; we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt anyway.
Far from simply being a retelling of the Robin Hood tale, this is, if you like, Robin’s back story. It ends where most of the other versions begin, in Sherwood Forest, with Robin now having earned himself that synonymous ‘outlaw’ label. All in all Ridley and Russell have done themselves proud and it’s good to see them back on entertaining form after humdingers like A Good Year. But will the might of Robin be able to topple his giant predecessor? Something tells me no, but the former Gladiator has certainly added another string to his bow.