Someone once adeptly coined the phrase, "the devil's candy," while dramatizing Hollywood's addiction to all things big. From Cleopatra, to Heaven's Gate, to Bonfire of the Vanities, it has become a parlor game to handicap the fate of a movie based on the size of its budget. Director James Cameron inflates budgets of his movies because ... well, because he's James Cameron. He torches the landscape with abandon and leaves viewers breathless, but rarely do his films (Avatar, Titanic) advance the art form. In contrast, director Ridley Scott invests as much in character as in effects. His Robin Hood walks a very thin line between big-budget entertainment and a culturally satisfying experience. The end result is thrilling.
Scott is not exactly the darling of critics, and Robin Hood is no exception; the early reviews have been pretty tough. But time and time again, Scott's movies (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) are worth every penny of admission. He's not afraid of big themes, but he also fills the screen with stories that resonate with viewers. He does more than entertain. His movies matter.
There was every reason in the world for this Robin Hood to fail. More than 40 films feature Robin, the earliest from more than a century ago. We watched Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn in the '20s and '30s; we saw Disney make him a fox; we even sat through Kevin Costner, complete with a mullet and a very American accent. Mel Brooks visited the man in the hood twice: in the 1970s sitcom, When Things Were Rotten and the film Men in Tights. Frank Sinatra sang and danced as "Robo" in Robin and the 7 Hoods, John Cleese stole Time Bandits with his version of the title role, and Sean Connery played Robin as a bald, paunchy, middle-aged conundrum in Robin and Marian.
Yet the 2010 incarnation is true to the Robin Hood that many of us long for. He remains a defender of liberty, a champion of fairness, but is always a bit of a scalawag. Russell Crowe as Robin Longstride adds one more iconic character to his quiver of performances. Say what you will about Crowe's off-screen antics, but when he commits to a role, he's in 110 percent. And Robin can only be as good as his enemy is bad. Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes, Young Victoria) inhabits the villainous Godfrey with menace. The role offers very little nuance here, and the scar-faced bad-ass is a perfect foil. And Cate Blanchett's Marian warms the screen first with the slightest of sparks and then with a hearth ablaze.
But this is Scott's Robin Hood. His cinematic palette of pewter grays and blood reds splash across the screen with great effect. His sweeping panoramas of Nottingham and the cliffs of Dover are never self-indulgent and always move the story forward. The score by little-known Marc Streitenfeld is lush.
It's hard to understand why this Robin Hood is taking such a critical drubbing. Don't hate it because it's big. Instead, embrace its largesse. Sometimes a movie is big because its ideals are big: righteous battles, untethered freedom, pure love. And Robin Hood emerges victorious.