Ridley Scott´s Robin Hood is a mostly solid tale of the “real” origins of the legendary character, with just one problem: it ain´t a damn Robin Hood movie. It´s perpetually stuck between a faithful portrayal of all the famous characters we know and love, and something more grandiose: a Ridley Scott epic in the vein of Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven (or Braveheart, or King Arthur, or, well, you get the point.)
But it´s good-enough entertainment, made by capable filmmakers: tightly scripted by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), though we know where this is going and the ending isn´t really justified by what comes before it, and efficiently directed by Scott, if a tad long in the tooth (the same could be said for his previous epics, though the extended version of Kingdom of Heaven earned it´s extreme runtime.)
And it´s well-cast and acted, with Russell Crowe at his most likeable (and slimmest!) since 2005´s Cinderella Man as Robin Longstride, soon to become Robin Loxley, and eventually Robin of the Hood. Cate Blanchett makes for a lovely Marion, and the duo bring an elegant aspect of romance to the screen. There´s solid support by Max von Sydow and William Hurt, and Mark Strong, as Sir Godfrey, makes for an adequate baddie (Oscar Isaac, on the other hand, is no Claude Raines as Prince John.)
But Robin Hood doesn´t work as a Robin Hood movie: there´s no dashing sense of justice, no steal-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor as Robin leads his not-so-merry men in a vicious battle against - the French? Yes, here Robin unites the peasants across the land, unfairly taxed, villages burned to the ground - and after some equality-for-all pep talk and a dubious promise by Prince John - they´re off to fend off invading French forces and the treacherous Godfrey in the name of the King. The nature of the character, set up so nicely in an early scene where he speaks his mind to Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), has morphed into something else.
Nor does the movie work as a Ridley Scott historical epic: it's been sanitized for PG-13 audiences, cleansed of blood and gore, the multiple war scenes frustrating edited to hide the violence. The impact is lost, and the action scenes far less effective than we´ve seen before.
Robin Hood begins with Robin, Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and Allan A´Dayle (Alan Doyle) fighting alongside Richard the Lionheart in France. He impersonates the deceased Robert Loxley in order to return home, and soon finds himself impersonating Loxley so that the man´s father, William Loxley (von Sydow) has a surrogate son, and Widow Marion Loxley (Blanchett) has a man to inherit her land.
Meanwhile, 13th Century politics: Prince John inherits the throne from Richard, dispenses of the faithful advisor William Marshal (Hurt), and allies himself with the secretly traitorous Godfrey, who proceeds to terrorize the land in John´s name. This strange villain-villain relationship - in which the more powerful villain is supposed to be less villainous than another one who betrays him - just doesn´t work all that well dramatically, and recalls the Zues-Hades relationship from Clash of the Titans.
Robin Hood, as shot by Scott standby John Mathieson (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven), is awash in browns and puke-greens; an ugly sea of dirt and mud and perpetually dying foliage. Realistic, perhaps (though the forests could occasionally be filled with some vibrancy, no?), but soon your eyes begin to reject all the grime and you´ll be pining for the crisp, clean Technicolor splendor of 1938´s The Adventures of Robin Hood.
At the end, we´re given a title card: “and the legend begins ,” which seems to suggest a sequel; modest box office prospects would suggest otherwise. And few, I imagine, will want to see this “true” story behind the legend carried over into the legend itself.
Still, Robin Hood works just fine for what it set out to do; I can only criticize the wrong-headedness of what it set out to do, and non-fans of Robin Hood will enjoy this just fine. For fans, there´s no shortage of films that pick up where this one leaves off: from the 1922 silent with Douglas Fairbanks, to the definitive 1938 Errol Flynn version, through Richard Lester´s underrated Robin and Marian up to the largely ridiculed but entertaining Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with Kevin Costner. And who really wants another Robin Hood that does the same old-same old, anyway?
Whatever Works is Woody Allen´s best straight comedy in years - at least since 2000´s Small Time Crooks, and possibly since 97´s Deconstructing Harry. A lot of that has to do with lead Larry David, co-creator of TV´s Seinfeld and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm; he´s at his sarcastic, self-loathing best here, a rare chance to see him in a feature film and a perfect match for the director´s style.
David´s Boris Yellnikoff (the character name says it all) has been routinely identified as a stand-in for the usual Woody Allen role, but that isn´t really the case. The average Woody character is a put-upon, neurotic, but ultimately sympathetic and endearing character; here, David´s Boris is a sarcastic, holier-than-thou asshole who seems to deserve all the tough breaks life deals against him.
Boris lives alone (it´s easy to see why) in a run-down New York City apartment, teaches chess to kids, complains about life in general and berates those around him with a nonstop stream of disdain. He was almost-nominated (hah!) for a Nobel Prize in quantum mechanics, he repeatedly claims. He narrates his own story, speaking directly to the camera: “I´m not a likable guy.” It´s an understatement.
And into his life comes runaway 18-year-old Southern belle Melody St. Anne Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) whose lack of intelligence (let´s call it an ‘innocence´) makes her immune to all of Boris´ sarcasm and despair. She´s the kind of girl you can´t help but pity, and Boris begrudgingly helps her out by letting her stay in his place. Against all odds, yeah, you know what happens.
Forget the age difference between the two characters (David is in his early sixties, and always seems older); these are two people we actively don´t care for, and don´t want to see anything resembling a romance between. But there´s something very, very funny in their train wreck of a relationship, and Allen knows this. Certainly, they deserve each other.
And when sticking to Boris, and his relationship with Melody, Whatever Works really works. Then it splinters off into numerous threads - one involving Melody´s mother (Patricia Clarkson) and her entrance into a Bohemian lifestyle, another involving Melody´s father (Ed Begley Jr.) and a third following her relationship with a younger man (Henry Cavill) - and well, Woody spends too much time telling us these stories instead of showing us, and they lack the requisite payoff for all the time we spend with them.
And ultimately, for all its good, Whatever Works doesn´t fully take off. Part of this is due to the tone Woody takes: there´s some of Boris Yellnikoff in his direction, as he distances himself from the material. While this is a comedy, and works just fine as such, there´s plenty of drama here that falls flat because we never know how exactly to feel about it.
Still, the film is a welcome return to obscure comedy after some of Allen´s recent disappointingly mainstream-y fare (Anything Else, Hollywood Ending). Fans of the director should fully enjoy.
Also opening: Garfield's Pet Force (showtimes | IMDb), a South Korean-produced direct-to-video animated feature that has been converted to 3D for a theatrical presentation in the Czech Republic. Playing in a Czech-dubbed version in most cinemas, also in English at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům, without Czech subtitles (following the sold-out screenings of the original English-language Toy Story movies in 3D; after this one bombs, don't expect many more original-English 3D titles).