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Well-crafted 'Robin Hood' provides sharp take on blurry legend

For me, the definitive Robin Hood will always be Disney's.

Then again, Disney's Robin Hood is my definitive anything. WhenI was young, I watched that movie as if it were pornographic, or atleast as if it were the animated version of the Victoria'sSecret catalog. If I'd been wired a little different, I'dprobably be talking about this from within a giant raccoon suit,complete with the kind of access hatches you normally only see onthose red prospectors' pajamas.

-- Local show times, theaters, trailer.

Yet somehow that childhood fascination with Robin Hood hasn'ttranslated to my grownup life. And I love stealing! My ignorance ofthe real story of the man, then, is a special kind of ignorance. Afterwatching Ridley Scott's take on Robin Hood, I'm not sure I'many closer to the truth — it's a possible history, not a definitiveone — but I'll tell you this much, I liked it a whole lot more thanGladiator.

When the king dies during the Crusades, archer Russell Crowe and hisfellow soldiers strike out for England. Along the way, he happens uponnobleman Douglas Hodge, who, mortally wounded in an ambush, asks Croweto return his sword to his father.

But the ambush Crowe witnessed was part of a French scheme to throwEngland into unrest. As Crowe settles into a peaceful life, he findshimself hunted by Mark Strong, the French agent who means to leaveEngland open to invasion.

Though all the figures of legend show up sooner or later, RobinHood is firmly an origin story, the events that led up to theman's forest-roaming banditry. With any luck, its success won't spursimilar prequels for other larger-than-life figures. I just don'tthink a feature-length movie about Peter Parker building models in hisaunt's basement would be as thrilling as the concept suggests.

Crowe's route to heroism is a wandering and largely unintentional one.Robin Hood has so much intrigue that if cars were powered byschemes instead of gas, I'd be broken down halfway to Mars. Notbecause I ran out of intrigue gas, but because internal combustionengines have an awfully hard time operating in the oxygen-free vacuumof space. Once again, Google Maps has done me dirty.

Scott has got the directing chops to work the courtly machinationsinto the story without bogging things down. The pace is a bit slow,but it isn't boring. Then again, I'm fascinated for origin stories.After watching The Fly, I was clamoring for Maggot: TheEarly Years.

Good writing will usually rescue a slow story. Writer Brian Helgelandis a true renaissance man, having penned everything from hacky crapsuch as The Taking of Pelham 123 to Oscar winners such as L.A.Confidential. Here, he's not in peak form — many of the sidecharacters are willow-thin — but he's at least in foothills form,providing light comedy alongside Crowe's unusual path to action.

But as Robin Hood gains momentum, it starts to wobble. Thefinal battle is gorgeous — Scott has always got great cinematography — butit's rushed and a bit melodramatic.

And although Cate Blanchett's performance is among the strongest of the bunch, her role there isforced. Naturally, I thought it felt cribbed from Return of theKing.

The ending hustles along, shoehorning itself into the setup for thelegend. After all that deliberate pacing, it's an abrupt turn; Iwould've forgiven an already-long movie to spend just a couple minutesmore to wrap things up.

Still, despite its lapses Robin Hood is well-crafted and well-told, a plausible take on a very blurry legend.

Grade: B-

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