Robin Hood
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Oscar Isaac
Rated PG-13 for violence, including intense sequences of warfare, and some sexual content.
2 hrs. 20 min.

Kingdom of Heaven killed the epic.

That’s what many critics were saying in 2005 when Ridley Scott’s crusader film crashed and burned with audiences, earning an anemic $47 million in the United States. The Orlando Bloom vehicle was filled with excesses: it had a meandering plot, a miscast lead actor with little charisma, an underutilized romantic lead (Eva Green) and an overabundance of melodrama.

Yet despite its warts, the sleek production looked and felt true to the time, and there was an ambitious premise underneath. If Scott had made just a few different (admittedly critical) decisions, Kingdom could have been an excellent film.

Robin Hood is the acclaimed director’s do-over. On a shorter rein from producers, the revisionist take on the medieval legend thrives as a taut action-adventure movie that takes its cues from Batman Begins, Casino Royale and even The Mask of Zorro.

At the very least, it’s a well-made if predictable summer blockbuster that is leagues above much of the other fluff that is released at this time of year. At its best, the film continues to showcase the remarkable talent of Cate Blanchett and remind audiences that, even though you may not like him, Russell Crowe is one of the few action stars still in his prime.

Like Scott’s magnum opus Gladiator, Robin Hood begins with the title character miles away from his home, fighting in the crusades for the war-weary King Richard the Lionheart (a brilliant cameo by Danny Huston). But instead of launching directly into the plot, the first 45 minutes of the movie serve to reintroduce all the legend’s familiar characters (Maid Marian, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Little John, Friar Tuck) and establish the new origin story.

It’s a risky gamble to spend that much time laying the foundation of the movie, but it pays off. (Some underused characters will get more screen time if a sequel is green lit.) By the time the film’s more generic Braveheart plot kicks in, the audience actually cares about the characters involved. If you’re keeping score, this is what separates the film from something like 2004’s wannabe epic King Arthur.

While Robin is away in the crusades, the groundwork for civil unrest is being laid back home in Britain, where taxes are soaring sky high and the government is run by the hilariously inept hedonist Prince John (Oscar Isaac). The French, as always, are plotting to invade the British Isles, and the Sheriff of Nottingham is hounding Maid Marian (Cate Blanchett) to join him in bed in exchange for the taxes her estate owes.

Much has been made about the film’s supposed anti-tax “Tea Party” leanings, but this sentiment is clearly the case of audiences looking to impose their ideology on the movie rather than a conscious effort on the filmmaker’s part. (This is, after all, a sanitized studio product.)

As Ridley jumps from subplot to subplot, he balances the tone between solemn war epic and light-hearted action film with ease — jumping from gruesome and immaculately photographed castle sieges to a jolly night on the Nottingham pubs with Little John and Friar Tuck. The juggling of so many different characters and plot threads should have been a tedious endeavor, but surprisingly, each bit role (especially Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham) springs to life with familiarity and good humor.

In the pantheon of live action Robin Hood movies, Ridley Scott’s version can’t lay claim to being the definitive take (which remains the territory of Errol Flynn’s 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood), but it shows up more recent incarnations. Above all, it lays the necessary groundwork for future installments to explore the legend’s rich mythology.

And yes, you’ll actually want to see a sequel.   

erik@vcreporter.com