If Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood suffers from any one thing — and it suffers from many — it suffers from being disconnected from the classic nature of the character. Even Kevin Costner’s Robin of Locksley, through the terrible accent, had a bit of joie de vivre. Even he had a bit of fun. Scott’s character — personified by the fiercely serious Russell Crowe — is a character we’ve seen before. And a character we’ve loved before. But he’s no Robin of the Hood. Not a bandit, but a bum. And even when the film does accomplish a bit of merriment — and it does — Robin scowls on. For far too long than is necessary.
I will admit that the story from Brian Helgeland, Ethan Reff and Cyrus Voris is an interesting take, at least at first. We meet Robin Longstride (Crowe) as an archer in the army of King Richard (a chubby, megalomaniac version played by Danny Huston). After the equivalent of a bar fight with one of his soon-to-be-merry men, Little John (Kevin Durand), Longstride ends up in the stockade. He watches a siege on a French castle from afar, joined by Little John and his two merry compatriots (Scott Grimes and Alan Doyle), in which the King is slain by a short order cook (it almost makes sense if you see it happen). With the King dead, Robin and his (relatively new) friends escape back to England, disguised as Knights, where various circumstances lead them to the poor farming village of Nottingham, and the tough widow known as Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett).
As I mentioned, the take is interesting. Robin isn’t the son of a lord come back to avenge the death of his father. He’s a mercenary, acting under the guise of being the son of a Lord (and the husband of Marion). He and his men, without a place to call their own, take up the cause of Nottingham because they’ve nowhere else to go, not out of a sense of goodness or righteousness. Of course, as the film plods along well past the two hour mark, Robin learns about himself and his past, leading him to become a righteous man, and the leader of a revolution against the new King John (Oscar Issac).
On the whole, Robin Hood is perhaps the safest film that we’ve ever seen from Ridley Scott. There are certain expectations that one might have, considering the director’s history. And more notably, his history with Russell Crowe. One might go as far as to expect a violent Robin Hood on par with Gladiator, or perhaps Braveheart. But in this case, when the film begins to get violent, Scott shies away from spilling blood or allowing his characters to move into darker territory. He embraces, and cuddles with, his PG-13 rating. Not to say that Robin Hood needs to be violent. As an apologist for Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: The Prince of Thieves, I would argue that it’s possible to make a good PG-13 Robin Hood story.
Unfortunately, this film meanders in that middle ground between being violent and being light, never able to overcome the intensity of Russell Crowe, even with delightful performances from the Merry Men and Mark Addy as Friar Tuck. And as I mentioned, when it comes time to spill some blood — namely in the Normandy-esque beach invasion scene shown in the trailers (even though it comes right out of the third act), Scott uses hard cuts to avoid showing anything too gruesome. The scale is big, but the action is too fast and scattered.
As well, Scott gunks up his final action sequence with some misplaced sexual politics, all of which revolve around the “strong” character of Marion. For a time, Cate Blanchett is able to give the character simultaneous strength and grace. It is her way. But in the end, this fierce version of Marion doesn’t fit. When she joins the fight, she’s nothing, if not a big problem. It’s not a feminist or anti-feminist issue, but more of a story structure problem. Marion has her moments of toughness in the second act. She’s the glue that holds her village together. But her actions in the final act of this film are nonsensical, and she feels wedged into the final battle so as to reinforce how tough she is. We get it.
Speaking of characters. Lets take a moment to comment on Oscar Isaac as Prince (and eventually King) John. What a poorly constructed, surface-level character. Either Ridley Scott was looking for something ironic here, or Isaac was mistakenly paying homage to Richard Lewis. For a King, he certainly does make a fool of himself down the home-stretch. Yet another example of the tonal imbalance of this film. Sometimes it feels as if they stopped writing ever twenty pages or so, and conferenced over how there wasn’t anything funny happening. Then bad jokes were injected, and the action film resumed.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, there is always the exposition problem. There is exposition written on scrolls, characters whose entire purpose (i.e. William Hurt’s character William Marshall) is to spout exposition and be otherwise meaningless, and even some ill-placed narration.
Alright, enough beating. There are some redeeming elements here. This is, after all, a beautifully shot film that does deliver a few brawny action sequences. Despite it’s tone imbalance, poorly placed dialogue and mishandled characters, the film is likely to connect with audiences based on scale and star pedigree alone. Russell Crowe is forceful actor who commands attention, and even in his weakest moments on screen, he is interesting. Cate Blanchett as well, has a presence that is undeniable. And as I mentioned, the Merry Men (Durand, Grimes and Doyle) are a lot of fun, if underused.
But all of this doesn’t add up to more than an extravagantly hollow experience. One that is punctuated with an overtly schmaltzy and forced ending that wreaks of a sequelizing agenda. At the end of this Robin Hood, audiences are left to feel as if the story they came to see happens after the credits. It’s similar to Batman Begins, only more bloated and less interesting.
The Upside: Beautifully shot and littered with a few spirited action sequences.
The Downside: The tone doesn’t feel right, even when it registers at all. The film is completely disconnected from the Robin Hood we’ve known and loved before. And it substitutes scale for substance.
On the Side: At 45 Russell Crowe is the oldest actor to have played Robin Hood in a movie. Sean Connery was nearly 45 when he played a veteran Robin Hood in Robin and Marian.