Directed by Ridley Scott
The story of director Ridley Scott’s attempt to bring the Robin Hood legend to a contemporary audience isn’t exactly the stuff of myths, but it is a telling indicator of the compromises even the most bankable directors and stars apparently need to make to get a major project off the ground. Three years ago, Scott was meant to helm a film called Nottingham, which was to feature the formerly villainous Sheriff of Nottingham as the hero. Over the intervening period (thanks in no small part to the WGA strike), the project gradually morphed into a sort of Robin Hood “origin story,” that most tedious of summer movie staples. Despite the warmed-over concept, Scott’s Hood is not entirely the disaster one might expect, though it’s difficult to imagine the film stirring audiences as Scott and star Russel Crowe’s other period action flick, 2000’s Gladiator, did.
Crowe stars as, of course, Robin Longstride, who beings this iteration of the legend as a lowly grunt in the army of King Richard (Danny Huston) who finds himself at odds with the English royals, and yet is inextricably linked to them thanks to a series of long-shot coincidences too labyrinthine to detail here. It takes a whole lot of scene-setting to get Crowe to The Shire Nottingham, where he meets a feisty landowner by the name of Marion (Cate Blanchett, apparently a last-minute replacement for Sienna Miller), whose blind, aging father (Max von Sydow) sees Longstride as a replacement of sorts for his slain son.
Robin Hood‘s principal flaw lies in its identity crisis. In its tedious opening 45 minutes, it plays out as a pseudohistorical drama, with long sequences detailing the finer points of Anglo-French relations and the toll of the Crusades. When Crowe and his sporadically amusing band of brothers finally roll into Nottingham, the tone shifts completely and suddenly we seem to be in for a fairly standard restatement of the contemporary notion of the legend, complete with a sniveling Sheriff (Matthew Macfadyen) and a portly, beekeeping Friar Tuck (Mark Addy). Before long, however, Crowe and Blanchett are forced to drop their easy chemistry at the mercy of More Exposition, mostly at the hands of Sydow’s elderly rambler.
Scott’s unwillingness to have fun with the material – combined with the project’s embarrassingly obvious neutering at the hands of the PG-13 police – cripples the film immeasurably, but there are mild pleasures to be found. The easygoing middle portion is familiar but effective. Mark Strong, who has been a recurring figure in Hollywood villainy over the last few months (Kick-Ass, Sherlock Holmes) is in typically malevolent form here as English traitor Godfrey. (Oscar Isaac’s King John is less fun to watch, feeling like a pale echo of Joaquin Phoenix’s epically impotent Commodus in Gladiator.) Crowe himself is certainly too old for the role, but is in fine, grizzled form anyway. Moments in some of the action sequences remind us of Scott’s visual flair, especially the climax, which functions as a sort of Medieval re-imagining of D-Day.
None of which changes the fact that Robin Hood is nothing more or less than the sum of its parts; it’s a thoroughly workmanlike effort that neither betrays nor uplifts its source material, hamstrung as it is by its simultaneous need to be taken at least semi-seriously as historical fiction while delivering on the character details and story aspects that purists might demand. The final reel’s promises of further adventuring are unlikely to inspire either scorn or celebration – surely a sign that Ridley Scott will never be the cinematic outlaw we need in our very own trying times.
– Simon Howell