Russell Crowe as Robin Longstride
Cate Blanchett as Marion Loxley
Max von Sydow as Sir Walter Loxley
William Hurt as William Marshal
Mark Strong as Godrey
Oscar Isaac as Prince John
Danny Huston as King Richard the Lionheart
Eileen Atkins as Eleanor of Aquitaine
Mark Addy as Friar Tuck
Matthew Macfadyen as Sheriff of Nottingham
Kevin Durand as Little John
Scott Grimes as Will Scarlet
Alan Doyle as Allan A’Dayle
Douglas Hodge as Sir Robert Loxley
Léa Seydoux as Isabella of Angoulême
Directed by Ridley Scott
Generally, trying something new is always worthwhile. Movies, especially Hollywood movies, love to play it safe to begin with which can make for a lot of repetitive film watching. Throw in a fair amount of behind-the-scenes rewriting and tweaking in the process of a movie actually getting made and it’s easy for whatever was new and different to get lost or bent so firmly out of shape any original vision is lost. This doesn’t mean the attempt shouldn’t be made, but even when taking a break from remakes and sequels you can still end up with a mess.
Which is how you get a “Robin Hood” movie that takes what would be the first 15 or 20 minutes of any other version of the story and stretches it out to nearly two and a half hours.
Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is a common yeoman and archer in the waning days of King Richard’s (Danny Huston) crusade, desperate for nothing more than to return home to England. When Richard’s right-hand man, Robert of Loxley, is murdered by French agents, Robin takes his name and his place and soon finds himself in the middle of a clash between Saxon barons, the newly minted King John (Oscar Isaac) and a French invasion attempting to take advantage of the country’s civil unrest.
If that doesn’t sound much like any version of “Robin Hood” you’ve ever heard, that’s because it’s not, contenting itself more with political espionage and drama and large medieval battles than with Merry Men and Sherwood Forest. Which is fine as far as it goes; there’s no reason a Robin Hood film has to be the same as every other or to judge this one for what it’s not. But if you’re going to go out of your way to give up the well-known structure, you’ve got to replace it with something that works, and director Ridley Scott’s version doesn’t have that. Instead, it throws a mixture of English history and medieval derring-do, seemingly at random, hoping for something to stick.
The basics are all here: Prince John taking the keys to the kingdom and levying taxes on the Saxons, holding them down; Friar Tuck and Little John and all the Merry Men; a cowardly Sherriff of Nottingham; even a little robbing from the rich. But it’s perfunctory compared with the central plot, serving to do little more than muddy the waters and lessen any drama there could have been.
It turns out that John’s right-hand-man Godfrey (Mark Strong) has been conspiring with the French to help John destabilize the country so that it will be easier for the French to take over. Only by banding together will England get out of that mess, no easy task when it will require the exceptionally arrogant John to give up so much of his newly-inherited power.
So what you’ve got here is really a story about England fighting a foreign invasion, interspersed with precursors of what will be the Robin Hood mythos. There’s no reason that couldn’t work, but it would require a solid replacement of the central dramatic thrust of the story (robbing from the rich to give to the poor) with something just as good, but you don’t really get that. If it is going to go so far against expectations of a Robin Hood story it should go all the way, using dramatic irony and reinterpretation of past events to throw new light on what we know will happen. When “Robin Hood” actually does that, mostly in the first half as Robin meets his fellow merry men and makes his way to Nottingham, it works quite well and offers a glimpse of an excellent reimagining of the old story. It then stops halfway through and plods ahead with more classic “Robin Hood” tropes that don’t reward what’s come before, and due to the nature of the chosen structure, can’t be paid off.
What you end up with is well-crafted, well-produced, but muddled. There are several villains, principally John and Godfrey, only one of which Robin can really contest with, because everyone else is needed for the classic Robin Hood story we’re getting teased with. Thus John is pretty much an arrogant bastard from introduction to closing credits, so there is absolutely no tension to be had. You know as soon as he pledges his word to sign the Magna Carta that he has no intention of following through, if not from knowledge about the Robin Hood story, than from the overbearing way Isaac plays him. He’s unable to find any humanity in John. How much better would it have been if there was some sort of relationship between Robin and John, one that sours leading him to be an outlaw? That sort of thing would have worked. What we get is a tease with no resolution, and knowing how it will all come out isn’t particularly rewarding.
That said, there is plenty to like and if “Robin Hood” could have fulfilled on its early promise, Scott and company could have really had something here. Barring a few pieces of unneeded overacting, most of the performances are fine, especially from Crowe and his men, and Blanchett’s strong version of Maid Marion, who’s been running things while her husband has been off to the Crusades. Danny Huston does a very memorable King Richard and it’s unfortunate he’s not in more of the movie.
There is also quite a bit of time given to the positive relationships in the film and how they lead the characters where they need to go: between Robin and Marion and his namesake’s father Walter (Max von Sydow), John and his famous mother Eleanor (Eileen Atkins). There’s a lot of time given to showing how the different characters are pushed and pulled along, but it doesn’t really pay off except for Robin and Marion. And Blanchett and Crowe, however good they are individually, don’t have a lot of chemistry together.
“Robin Hood” looks great and often benefits from sparking dialogue by screenwriter Brian Helgeland (among many others who put their hands to it), with the sort of well-executed mise-en-scène we’ve come to expect from Scott, but it’s a lot of sound and thunder that amounts to nothing. Bringing new ideas to an old standard is always a worthwhile cause, but that doesn’t mean it will necessarily lead to anything good. This “Robin Hood” is unfortunate proof of that.