“Cometh the hour, cometh the man.”
Heckuva line. And, when spoken by an 81-and-at-the-top-of-his-prodigious-game Max von Sydow to Russell Crowe’s broody archer in Robin Hood, it resounds with giddy portent and nudges open the coyest of adrenal valves. (I don’t think adrenal valves exist, but you know what I mean.)
The question, of course — if one wants to wax more-than-a-touch dramatic — is whether that hour be now, and that man be Crowe.
On a limb: Yeah, kinda.
As with comparably iconic countrymen James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood has been reinvented persistently enough to have become cemented in discrete cinematic iterations to correspondent generations and subgroups. (Further, also as with Bond and Holmes, it’s interesting to note how many of those iterations were limned by non-English actors.) If you came of age before 1970, the name almost certainly conjures dreamlike images of Fairbanks, scaling an ivy-draped castle wall and throttling Sam De Grasse, or Flynn, talking jaunty mess from a tilted chair and then laying arrow-y waste to a banquet hall. If after, then, to you, he’s probably (a) a talking fox (avec British accent, no less!); (b) Cary Elwes (ditto!), antagonized by Richard Lewis and abetted by Dave Chappelle; or, if you’re like me, (c) Kevin “The Balls” Costner, shooting slo-mo, flaming arrows, bathing bare-assed in a waterfall (and getting Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio all blanchy and bothered in the process), and slipping in and out of a phantom Saxon lilt whenever the eff he pleases, because he just can. (Good gravy, do I love that film. Wholly and unapologetically.) Now, to a whole army of kids far too young to care what I say or who any of those people are, Crowe’s is the bow. And, though my Costner-love persist unabated, I must say: I don’t pity them.
The film, at 140 minutes, aims at “epic” — and hits the mark. It’s a large story, larger than expected, and executed solidly on all fronts, which is hardly surprising, in view of its pedigree. Scott and Helgeland, of course, know well what they do, and, though I prefer vastly his character work to his stoic, straight-action leads, Crowe knows how to carry a picture. The remainder of the cast is subtly remarkable; a number of choices border brilliance, including, as mentioned, the excellent van Sydow (who, as he did in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, all but steals the show despite somewhat limited screen time), newcomer Oscar Isaac as effete, delightfully bitchy rockstar-fop Prince John, and Merry Men Durand, Grimes, and Addy (as Tuck), providing welcome … merriment. Strong, as crown hitman/heavy Sir Godfrey, is as simmeringly menacing as we’ve now come to expect him to be.
Does the film feel, at times, a bit like Gladiator with a different paint job? Well, sure. More than a bit, probably. A fair percentage of audiences, though, I’d wager, would be accepting-to-welcoming of a second such ride. (I happen to prefer Robin Hood to Gladiator, though I’m in the `minority?` camp who thinks of the latter as “a darned good action movie,” but wasn’t nodding when it started racking up Oscars.) Also, just try not to think of Saving Private Ryan during the nonetheless-worthy and climactic England-v.- invading-France beach battle. (G’head. Try.)
“Now, wait a second,” you think. “A French invasion is the climax? I thought this was Robin Hood.” Well, yes. But also: very much no. You see, friend, by thinking that — which I somehow knew you would — you’ve not only provided an excellent transition to my next point, you’ve stumbled upon the single most important caveat for embarking on this particular adventure: Don’t go to Robin Hood expecting to see what one might from a Robin Hood film. All that hiding-in-the-woods, carriage-jacking-the-landed-and-wealthy business? Happens once. Awesome stuff with arrows? Three times, maybe. Driving the king nuts? Eh, kinda, at first, but Robin ends up fighting with the king, for England, side-by-side. (Huh? Yeah.) See, what folk need to understand going in, the make-or-break key to it all, is that Robin Hood is tantamount to a superhero origin story. It’s two-and-a-half hours of preface — entertaining, well-done preface, but preface nonetheless. It’s intriguing, captivating storytelling, about a common bowman, a disillusioned soldier who leaves the military, finds himself, and finds something worth defending.
There’s stuff here you’ve never seen or heard, but missing is a lot of stuff you have: Don’t expect him to face off against the Sherriff of Nottingham, don’t expect him to hang out in treehouses in Sherwood. I did, and wasn’t exactly disappointed (because I ended up liking what I got instead), but I can see why many would be. In a way, it feels like an opening to a sprawling sequel or trilogy — which I’d be up for, from this team. Just think of this one as Robin Hood Begins, or as analogous to the first Iron Man. (Stick around after the credits for a scene in which an eyepatch-sporting Ivanhoe finds ’Hood in a tavern and asks him to join a super-secret organization of heroes.) (Don’t, though.)
So, yeah. There’s a new Locksley in town. (He spells it “Loxley.”) For reasons too personal to alter, I’m still a Costner devotee, but: Welcome to the canon, Maximus.