Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Tale of Three Hoods

With all the focus on the holidays, I was tempted to do a holiday movie review, however, I thought I'd do something different, given my penchant for being the maverick. I decided that I would review three Robin Hood movies, one from my childhood, a classic, one a parody of great fun, and the other a recent revision of the tale.

The first on the list is the 1938 "Adventures of Robin Hood" starring consummate swashbuckler, and sometimes infamous, Errol Flynn. I first remember watching this when I was "just a wee squit", as my dad would say, and I was enthralled. The pageantry of the epic was astounding, a true child's tale come to life. The version my dad played was colorized and full of glorious costumes, vibrant landscapes and fantastically ornate sets. I loved it with a passion and was taken by every aspect of it. The characters were larger-than-life on the screen, even without the massive LCD sets that we have today, and were perfect in a family-oriented adventure that captured the spirit of the dashing rapscallion that robbed the rich to feed the poor. The plot on this one is fairly formulaic and straightforward, Robin is a Saxon nobleman who is disenfranchised with Prince John's (Claude Rains) seizure of power after King Richard the Lionheart's capture and imprisonment in an Austrian dungeon and is forced to turn outlaw to seek justice for Saxon and Norman alike.

Errol Flynn was the perfect choice as the title role, a "rascal" in real life, devilishly charming in this epic as he pulled out all the buccaneer stops as Robin of Locksley. Even when the moves might have not been practical, the lithe Aussie swung, leaped, and showed off all of his physical prowess and flashed that dashing smile enough to make any kid believe that legends and heroes really did exist. Likewise, the rest of the cast was astoundingly fantastic. Olivia de Havilland was perfect as the virtuous and strong-willed Maid Marian, haughtily rejecting Robin in his first advances, then "seeing the light" of his outlaw ways and risking her life to save him in the end. Basil Rathbone was always a stellar actor, however, in my humble opinion, some of his most memorable roles were the villains. His Sir Guy of Gisbourne was spot-on, arrogant, dashing at first, but maddeningly devious and evil as the story progressed.

While there are scenes of torture, battle and death to be had in this version, it's strictly a family film and not by any means offensive to those wary of excess in any of those fields. There's a fun chemistry between Flynn and de Havilland, as they had many occasions to act together in several films. There are several fantastic fighting scenes and brilliantly choreographed spars, especially the final duel between Robin and Gisbourne. For the most part, however, the whole feel of the movie is light-hearted and opulent at once, showing both the majesty of this tale and the child-like optimism of the the noble rogue who defies the unjust law of the land to do what is right.

From the other side of the coin comes a fun, equally light-hearted parody called "Robin Hood: Men In Tights", a Mel Brooks fare starring Cary Elwes as the lovable outlaw and Amy Yasbeck as Maid Marian. I love this one for several reasons, one, well, Mel Brooks. The cast is also littered with random actors from surprisingly different schools of acting, and many that you might not think of as taking the roles in such a film.

This version apes the storyline of "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" with Robin Hood escaping from a Saracen prison in Palestine following King Richard's crusade. Robin makes it out with Ahsneeze (Isaac Hayes), and makes it to some palm-ridden coast and decides to make the swim back, like you do. Before he embarks, Ahsneeze elicits a promise from Robin to look out for his son, Ahchoo (Dave Chapelle). Quickly after his return, Robin finds that his lands have been taken over by Prince John (Richard Lewis) and runs afoul of the stuttering, spooneristic Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees). Robin is forced to flee into the forest and encounters a host of blundering outlaws, whom he organizes and inspires to true rebellion.

One of the memorable musical numbers from this version is "Men in Tights". Comically butch and camp, I'll let the link do the talking on that one.

The best thing in this movie is, that like all good parodies, it pokes fun at everything, from popular culture to the actors themselves. Cary Elwes, a Londoner by birth, didn't lay the accent on too thickly, but gave a definite tweak to Costner's atrocious lack thereof in "Prince of Thieves". Patrick Stewart makes a great appearance as Richard the Lionheart, speaking with a heavy Scottish brogue and laying a wet sloppy one on Maid Marian at a wedding. There are several intervals of "rapping", after which, all the "gangstas" dance around merrily to the tune of a flute and lyre. Chapelle also channels Malcolm X in his speech to rouse the men of Sherwood into rebellion.

This movie isn't about anything relevant or deep social commentary, it's about pure fun and laughs. In a year where there there were very few parodies and the legend of Robin Hood had never been tackled in farce, at least intentionally, it was long overdue. This wasn't Mel Brooks' magnum opus by any means, nor did it garner random quotations by nerds aplenty, however, it is something that always come to mind when I think of Robin Hood movies nowadays, and it's always a good pick-me-up when life becomes too dreary and serious.

The last is the most recent incarnation, starring Russel Crowe and simply titled "Robin Hood". While there are plenty of anachronisms and historical fudgings, I've resigned myself to the fact that it's a bad idea to expect accuracy out of Hollywood. No, Richard did not hate his mother, Richard really didn't have a deep connection to England, nor the people, he was French by birth and merely held the throne. He might have spent all of three months there. And he didn't die on the battlefield. There's a list, of which I could wax lyrical about the missteps, assumptions and overall Hollywood silliness, but I'll refrain. I did, however, enjoy some of the little things that they did try to throw in there and tie into the legend.

This revision tells the beginning of Robin Hood's story. We meet a common archer, known as Robin Longstride, fighting for King Richard's army in France with his comrades. After being punished for his honesty and some disorderly conduct, the king is slain the following day after a lucky crossbow shot, and Robin and his fellows sneak out of the stocks to head home. On their way to the coast, they come across the scene of an ambush, where a nobleman and confidant of Richard, Sir Robert of Loxley, has been transporting the king's crown back to English shores. The political intrigues of the medieval courts are displayed in all of their nefariousness as Robin catches up with the driven assassin Godfrey (Mark Strong), who is working for the French crown to capture the English throne for Philip. Robin retakes the crown, assumes Loxley's identity as a means for returning, and makes a hasty retreat. When he and his men do manage to get on English shores, however, the responsibility of Loxley's identity comes to bear, leading Robin to make a choice that would ultimately have him leading a guerilla war against John Lackland.

First, let me say, I loved the action scenes. Most of my movie collection is comprised of action movies, and I'm not beyond cheering and loving a dumb, blow-'em romp that has little to no value in terms of mental gymnastics. The battles at the castle, the ambush in the woods to steal Richard's crown, the face-off against Godfrey and Philip's troops on the beach...I loved it, and Ridley Scott never fails to deliver on those to set your heart pounding.

Despite that sentiment, I did have a few complaints. Russel Crowe, while better on his bad days than many actors could ever hope to be, seems a bit subdued for this role. It may be his way of trying to play a man who feels as though he is adrift and out of his depth, but it comes off as a bit lackidasical. The supporting cast does a fantastic job, with Cate Blanchett as Maid Marian and Max Von Sydow as Sir Walter of Loxley who guides Robin in his charade. Cate does a great job as the feisty Marian, but gives her a bit of wistfulness and soul that makes her a little more than the "strong woman" cliche that Hollywood tends to utilize. Von Sydow is lovable and amusing as the quirky Sir Walter but yet manages a dignified, regal air at the same time. Robin's "merry men" are somewhat underdeveloped, and Matthew MacFayden as the Sheriff is definitely underutilized, but all still give great performances. Mark Strong is wonderfully psychotic, and almost unrecognizable for the first few minutes, as Godfrey. He's fast becoming one of my favorite actors to play villainous fiends.

Scott's use of the scenery and cinematography is breathtaking, as always, and he manages to display a true respect for the material, despite historical flubs. Once again, Hollywood...whaddya gonna do?

Overall, I'd say that despite its lack of accuracy and faults, I thoroughly enjoy this version. It has at once a grittiness and lofty beauty that resonates on both ends of modern sensibilities. We want to feel as though we're looking at a "realistic" epic of the time, something with a basis in reality, but yet transported to another realm in the media of film and able to escape from the humdrum, worker-bee existence that many of us occupy. It succeeds as an action flick and a story and does credit to the beginning of a legend that has inspired and intrigued throughout the centuries.

So there are my reviews....hope you enjoyed.