Sunday, 23 May 2010

Robin Hood; You, Scott, step away from the Middle Ages!

Robin Hood is one of those movies which seems to have had a build up out of all proportion to the finished product. I've been looking forward to it coming out for what seems like about three years when it was first reported that Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe were planning a film called Nottingham, which would have been all about the legend as seen from the viewpoint of law enforcement. When, a couple of years later, I heard that they'd (as they say in Hollywood) "gone another way" I was disappointed. This turns out to have been a useful primer for how I was going to need to feel about the eventual movie, just as the idea of a long buildup for something not that amazing turns out to have been a useful primer for the structure of the movie itself.

Robin Hood is a long movie, and it's a long movie where you start to feel the length pretty early on. It takes about an hour to slog through the precursor to the main action; it's that long before Robin even gets near Nottingham. This long buildup to the main plot is all the more appropriate when you get to the end of the whole movie and discover that the movie itself is just the long build up to how Robin Hood got into all that trouble and became an outlaw. So as should be clear, this is one of these long build up to an anticlimax experiences at more levels than seem possible for a mere motion picture, even one directed by Ridley Scott.

Who, oh who, shall we blame? It's so tempting to point the finger at Brian Helgeland, but Scott's got form on the middle ages and I'm going to let him take the hit for this, just as he took the hit for Kingdom of Heaven. When you've got as much control over the finished product as Scott does these days, it's not the writer's fault when it goes wrong, it's your fault for not hiring a better writer.

Anyhow, there you go. You get to numb yourself for a good bit over the two hours, and the movie ends before the conventional story is supposed to begin. Thus the need to hold out for the sequel, Robin Hood 2 the Enhoodening Sherwood Forest Boogaloo or whatever it finally gets called. Mind you, on the form we've seen so far, you'll be waiting a long time and it still won't be the movie you were hoping for, so have other plans dusted off.

What was good? What was bad? The performances are all at the very least perfectly workmanlike, although there may never have been a Robin Hood film that gave the Sheriff of Nottingham less to do (honestly, Matthew McFadyean must have had some very firm things to say to his agent. Sheriff of Nottingham in a Robin Hood movie. Juicy part. Loads to do. Great. There's actually more words in this paragraph than the Sheriff of Nottingham gets to say; talk about a let down for the actor.) Considering that a British director is setting out to make a paean to the yeoman virtues of the English peasantry, it's kind of a hoot that his four most English hero roles are played by a New Zealander, an Austrialian, a Swede and an American, but they all do a good job with what they're given.

It's traditional that all Robin Hood movies are stolen by the villain of the piece (no-one seems to have mentioned this to Kevin Costner, which is why you can only now, very belatedly, get a cut of Kevin Hood with all of Alan Rickman's scenes in it) and Scott's version is no exception. He gives the villain ball to King John for a change, and it's the standout role of the movie. Rather unexpectedly, it's stand-out because through most of the film King John seems like the only person with his head on straight. Sure he's petulant and self indulgent, but he's got a better understanding of where England's been going wrong lately than anyone else in the Royal family, and when he's called on to make tough decisions he consistently makes the sensible call rather than the stupid one (splendid moment at the climactic battle when he looks down to the beach and sees that there are rather a lot of people to fight. Rather than dithering, he turns to the experienced fighters around him and asks what they think would be the best move. And when they confidently say what they think, he nods briskly and says "Good plan" before letting them get on with it). All in all John comes across as a useful upgrade from the drunken loon who came before him. Not only is he sharp witted in repartee, he actually seems to be sharp witted in reality. It's a nice change from the usual approach to villainy in the movies.

What's bad? Well, the whole plot. Origin stories aren't interesting, no matter what people think in Hollywood and the last person in the whole English speaking world to need an origin story is Robin Hood. Then there's the beach invasion, which is so ludicrous that any sense of jeopardy goes out the window the minute the French army show up in landing craft. It's for all the world as if Scott had a sudden break with reality and told the prop makers that they were going to do Saving Private Robin. Because that makes more sense than the idea that he thought this was in any way convincing. The French army shows up to invade England at a secluded cove completely surrounded by cliffs, and they arrive in medieval flat bottomed rowed barges with ramps at the front. As an idea, it's something which Jeremy Clarkson could have seen the problems with. But it does allow Scott to replicate all the images from Saving Private Ryan, except for the bangalore torpedoes and the flamethrowers. Absolutely bonkers.

Other random bad things; mostly good ideas not followed through properly. Sherwood Forest is infested with orphan boys who are preying on the villages around them - obviously these are going to be Robin Hood's merrie men in the never-to-be-made sequel, but it's criminal how little is done with them in the movie that Scott was actually making. A lot less trick arrow shooting than you'd consider appropriate to the fun of a Robin Hood movie. And you could go on, but I think I've conveyed the sense of it.

If we follow the precedents set up to now, within less than a year there'll be a BluRay version with an extra hour of material added to it which Scott will explain was his true vision. It still won't be the movie he was supposed to make, where tough Sheriff Crowe sets out to take down the villainous Robin Hood and make the roads of Sherwood safe for commerce. Someone should get to work on that right now.

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