Here, at last, is Ridley Scott's Russell Hood: Prince of Prequels, a dark and brawny version of the Robin Hood legend that anchors itself in English history and loses some of the merriment in the process.
Scott, screenwriter Brian Helgeland of Green Zone and Russell Crowe take us back before men in tights to the leather, blood, bows and arrows of Crusades-era England for a film that presents Robin Hood as a working-class archer who becomes a freedom-fighting nobleman. And for the most part, it's a very entertaining history from the Third Crusade to the fight for the Magna Carta, which guaranteed civil liberties by limiting the power of the king.
Robin Longstride is a weary warrior riding with reckless King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) home from that crusade. When Richard is killed at a siege in France, the plainspoken Robin and a few "merry" men, make their way back to England on their own, but not before interrupting the attempted theft of the English crown by the Norman double-agent Godfrey (Mark Strong).
Robin impersonates the fallen knight entrusted with escorting the crown, Robert Loxley, and promises to return the man's sword to his father in Nottingham. When he does, he meets not only the blind old nobleman (Max von Sydow), but the Loxley's wife, the feisty Marion (Cate Blanchett). They "meet cute" in the best Hollywood Robin Hood tradition.
"Girl!" he calls to her as she fills a horse trough.
"Girrrrrllll?" she mocks back, a grown woman every bit the match for this "yeoman."
Robin impersonates Robert, sees the injustice of the church and King John's taxes, and starts to stir up trouble. The sacking, taxing and pillaging Godfrey stirs things up on the other side.
Helgeland's script is a grab-bag of history and earlier films, from The Lion in Winter (Richard and John's smart and scheming mom, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is here) to The Return of Martin Guerre (a returning soldier impersonates a dead man).
The touchstones of the Robin Hood legend are here — Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle) and Friar Tuck (the perfectly cast Mark Addy).
"I'm not a churchy friar," Tuck pleads as he shows off the bees that make the honey for his mead.
The Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew MacFadyen) is a cruel fop. Godfrey, played by that villain's villain, Strong, is the real heavy.
Scott, who dabbled in medieval history with Kingdom of Heaven, has given us Robin Hood as war film. And Crowe plays him as a gladiator, probably because Russell doesn't do "jaunty."
So for all the glorious detail, the sprinkles of wit and the thrilling action, what we have here is more than two hours of war and intrigue and historical and character clutter (William Hurt is here, why?) leading up to Robin's taking to the woods with a gang of "Lost Boys" and becoming "Robin of the Hood." It's fun and rousing entertainment, up to a point.
But brush up on your Third Crusade, Magna Carta and the First Barons' War if you want to follow this Robin all the way from Chalus-Chabrol to Sherwood.