The second week of summer (movie summer) is upon us and with it comes the second major studio release after the highly successful Iron Man 2. I speak, of course, of Robin Hood, the umpteenth attempt at turning the English legend into cinematic gold. I have yet to see the Errol Flynn version (sue me) but I am a sucker for the Disney, Costner, and Brooks versions. [Editor’s note: Though it’s not actually a Robin Hood movie, the best Robin Hood I’ve ever seen is John Cleese’s in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits.] Suffice to say, as much as I enjoy the story, I don’t know how necessary a retelling actually is, though, regardless of my love of Cate Blanchett, the ingredients for something pleasant are, in fact, present. (See what I did there?) This new Hood comes courtesy of director Ridley Scott and stars one Russell Crowe, two old pros who have achieved cinematic greatness and have now worked together five times.
Their pairing has produced mixed results, a best picture Academy Award and A Good Year (What the hell’s A Good Year? I know, right). Now, instead of dissecting their collaborations, or talking about the all-time best Actor-Director teams, or presenting an essay about the allure of Robin Hood, I thought I would simply recount each artist’s best work in the form of two separate top-3 lists. (I like lists, if you haven’t noticed.)
For the record, I have not seen every Russell Crowe movie or every Ridley Scott movie or even every Scott/Crowe movie, but I do believe I have seen their 3 best.
Top 3 Russell Crowe performances:
1. The Insider (1999) – Jeffrey Wigand
Crowe’s best ever was his portrayal of former tobacco man turned whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand. The only reason he didn’t win an Oscar 10 years ago (for the right part) was because Kevin Spacey also gave the best performance of his career that same year (American Beauty).
The film itself is by no means a favorite, even though it is very good. There is technically nothing wrong with the film; it is filled with great performances and great writing, but The Insider always felt stiff and so thickly layered that it fell a little short of true greatness.
The same cannot be said of Crowe’s deft performance. There is something quite remarkable about his complete transformation for this role. He gained 35 pounds (always impressive), adopted an accent, and looked believably aged, but there was something else to it, something you could see behind his eyes. Crowe draws you inside this man’s psyche and invites you to try and understand his actions. The story allows for an array of emotions: anger, paranoia, guilt, and loneliness, but Crowe never allows the audience an easy out. The character is a hero but far from altruistic. Crowe is the reason we understand and cheer this character on, albeit at arm’s length.
2. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Bud White
This was the role where everyone took notice of Crowe’s many talents. I myself had seen Crowe twice before in the fun Raimi western The Quick and the Dead and in the immortal sci-fi action epic Virtuosity. He was good in both, but it wasn’t until L.A. Confidential that the breadth of his talent became well-known.
As Bud White, Crowe was a force to be reckoned with. He exuded charisma, playing the tough as nails cop with a soft spot for battered women. The tension was palpable when he was on-screen, you had no idea what this guy was going to do next. He was a live wire and all the more dangerous because of the physicality he brought to the role. It was a tricky balancing act, the gentle charm with the bruising mean-streak, and it only benefit a movie that dealt with mystery and duality.
L.A. Confidential is a great movie, that would fit nicely as a double feature with Chinatown. The cast is amazing, the writing Oscar-winning, and the direction spot on. There’s a lot to take in while watching, mysteries to solve, red herrings, double-crosses, seductions, set pieces and most importantly the emergence of one of cinemas finest actors.
3. A Beautiful Mind (2001) – John Nash
The film is a tad divisive. It plays a little fast and loose with the facts; some find the whole thing to be a little too glossy and simplified. While I find it to be thoroughly entertaining, if a bit overrated (Best Picture… really?), nothing overshadows the great lead performance from Crowe.
Here, Crowe is handed an award-baiting role (mental illness) and avoids all the pitfalls. The thing I always took from his characterization was, once again, the physical nature of his acting. As Nash, Crowe has a way of carrying himself, conveying both intelligence and damage, a distinctive way of moving he sustains throughout, even as the character ages. John Nash is a math genius, a lover, and a delusional schizophrenic. Now, I might only know what one of those things looks like (your guess as to which one) but Crowe does a fantastic job of making me believe he is all three. The arc is pretty impressive this time around, ranging from slightly off to bat-shit crazy. But, his achievement was diminished by incredulous naysayers, doubtful that Crowe could deliver two consecutive Oscar-worthy performances, but he did, in fact, do it again. And I believe he still can.
Top 3 Ridley Scott movies:
1. Alien (1979)
I love me some Alien… my daughter’s name is Ripley. I love me some Aliens just a wee bit more. But, the original is a superb classic, that still stands in a class all its own.
It really isn’t all that complicated. You take an interesting group of characters (Ripley, Dallas, Ash), put them in an extreme setting (claustrophobic spaceship), and introduce them to the most terrifying movie monster of all-time. Of course, Scott also had the benefit of H.R. Giger’s designs, but he still had a lot to do with Alien’s success. He knew how to take advantage of the atmosphere and ratchet up the horror at just the right moments, gradually increasing both the tension and the intensity. First it’s just a creepy egg, then a scary facehugger, then a gory chestburster, and finally the fully grown, acid-bleeding, twin-mouthed monster. Since it’s become so iconic, it’s easy to forget that nobody knew what to expect upon release, so each new incarnation was a pulse-quickening discovery for the audience.
Throw in the terrific use of sound and practical effects, not only do you have Ridley Scott’s best movie but one of the best horror, best sci-fi, and best movies ever made period.
2. Gladiator (2000)
After Alien, I look down Scott’s resume and I realize he has made a lot of almost great films. Some of his films I like a lot but still have reservations about, for one reason or another (mostly the final acts tend to be big let downs). The best of the rest? Why Gladiator of course.
I have said many a time that this film is overrated (best picture?) and that Braveheart trumps it in every way imaginable (score, ending, gore). But, that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun bit of entertainment.
Scott took a dead genre (swords and sandals) and kick started it into 5th gear. He made the sweeping epic feel streamlined and immediate, modern yet classic; no easy feat. Russell Crowe is pretty damn good in it and the set-pieces are top-notch. But, what really saves the movie from itself is its instant watchability. There have been a slew of imitators since Gladiator first unleashed hell on audiences, but none quite as satisfying.
3. Blade Runner (1982)
This film’s influence cannot be denied. The opening shot alone, showcasing a futuristic L.A. landscape, has been aped more times than I can remember (even Attack of the Clones ripped it off). Blade Runner is iconic. It’s also the rare case of a movie featuring all style and very little substance actually working.
All that style comes straight from Scott and his groundbreaking vision. The film is a marvel of visual inventiveness. I should have it as number one based on all these reasons, except it’s just so slow. The pacing can be tough and the action a little more cerebral than I prefer. Regardless of the version you watch, Theatrical, Director’s cut, Final cut, the film still lacks a certain narrative thrust.
Despite my complaints, the movie is still pretty awesome and has its share of rewarding moments, culminating with Rutger Hauer’s wonderful final monologue.
Agree? Disagree? Are you excited to see Robin Hood? Do you think Crowe and Scott are past their prime?