Robin Hood (United States/United Kingdom, 2010)May 13, 2010
The tale of Robin Hood is one of several dozen Hollywood staples that experiences re-makes or re-interpretations on a regular basis by the motion picture industry. If nothing else, that's a testimony to the legend's enduring popularity. The most recent big-budget take, Kevin Reynolds' critically-panned blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (starring a woefully miscast Kevin Costner), arrived in theaters 19 summers ago, so one could argue it's time to provide the current generation with their own version. Although the material may, like many stories that have become overly familiar through repetition, be more inclined to provoke a yawn than a surge of excitement, the participation of director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe at least inspires intrigue. Can their involvement re-invigorate the narrative and make this Robin Hood more than an unnecessary placeholder between Iron Man 2 and Shrek Forever After? Sadly, it's difficult to answer that in the affirmative.
Scott's Robin Hood is a cobbling together of various elements from the many myths and legends about the revered outlaw. By cherry-picking fact and fiction (considerably more of the latter than the former), Scott crafts a different milieu than what one typically associates with the hero of Sherwood Forest. Unfortunately, the result is more like the warmed-up leftovers of Braveheart than a new approach to an old tale. There are numerous reasons why the film doesn't work as effectively as it might but the principal two likely have more to do with the financial realities of modern-day filmmaking than with inherent flaws in the material. The PG-13 rating (mandatory for maximizing audience size) disallows any serious bloodletting or sexuality, and this makes much of Robin Hood seem almost cartoonish. The 140-minute running length, although long for a "normal" motion picture, is skinny for a would-be epic and was likely achieved only after significant edits to the original cut. The result is choppy and there's a sense that a lot - perhaps too much - resides on the cutting room floor. One has to wonder whether Scott's original vision of Robin Hood was more adult and fully-formed than the theatrical version. (Kingdom of Heaven provided a perfect opportunity to compare the director's intended cut with the studio-mandated trim.)
Robin Hood functions as a prequel of sorts to the more common Robin Hood movies, making it the cinematic equivalent of a superhero origin story. The movie starts with Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) as one of the most accurate and honest archers in the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston). When the king is killed while assaulting a French castle, Robin and his cohorts obtain the crown and return it to London so the next ruler, Prince John (Oscar Isaac), can wear it. John proves to be a less able ruler than his brother. His chief goal is generating revenue, so he appoints the French double-agent Godfrey (Mark Strong) as his primary tax collector. Since Godfrey is actually working for the King of France, he is more interested in fomenting civil unrest than filling John's coffers, so he acts in ruthless, unprincipled ways. He and Robin become enemies and Godfrey's strike against Nottingham, where Robin has established an identity as the son of Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow) and the wife of Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett), is fueled primarily by revenge rather than as a means to improve the odds of a successful French invasion of England.
Most of the recognizable characters of Robin Hood lore are present. In addition to Robin and "Maid" Marion, we meet Friar Tuck (Mark Addy), a bee-keeping priest who cares more about equality on Earth than being rewarded in the afterlife; Robin's companions-in-arms from King Richard's Crusade, Little John (Kevin Durand) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes); and various other "Merry Men." The traditional Robin Hood villain, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen), is present, but his role is small and he's presented as silly and ineffectual. The real bad guy in this movie is Godfrey, and we know he's rotten to the core because he's being played by Mark Strong, who has recently donned a black hat in as such diverse offerings as The Young Victoria, Sherlock Holmes, and Kick-Ass. If that's not typecasting, I'm unsure what is.
Russell Crowe's version of Robin Hood never once reminded me of the character by that name. Crowe's portrayal is more that of a contemporary, generic, brooding action hero marooned 800 years before his time. His inspirational speeches are especially out of character, especially when one considers that the film would have viewers believe Robin was the force behind Magna Carta. If you didn't know he was supposed to be Robin Hood, you'd never guess. Cate Blanchett turns Marion into an equal-rights firebrand (I'm sure there were many of these around in 1200), even going so far as to don armor and participate in the climactic battle. The biggest oddity is Matthew Macfadyen's Sheriff, who would be more at home in a Shrek movie than this one. He could play with Donkey.
Everything in Robin Hood builds to a lavish battle pitting the undermanned English against the superior force of invading French. The sequence is so obviously cribbed from Braveheart that no attempt is made to hide the fact. The impact, however, is considerably less. The conflict is more tepid than rousing and the ending feels obligatory, perhaps because anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the Robin Hood legend knows where this is going. That's one of the problems with prequels in general: they're all about getting to an established point in the mythos, and often fail to excite as a result. There is some entertainment value to be found in Robin Hood, but my sincerest hope is that there's a better version out there awaiting a DVD release. (The "secret" involving Robin's parentage desperately needs to be fleshed out - it's half-puzzling and half-laughable as presented here.) If this truly is Ridley Scott's preferred cut, he has proven unable to justify the existence of yet another Robin Hood film.
Robin Hood (United States/United Kingdom, 2010)
Cast: Russell Crowe, Kevin Durand, Matthew Macfadyen, Mark Addy, Eileen Atkins, Danny Huston, Oscar Isaac, Mark Strong, William Hurt, Max von Sydow, Cate Blanchett, Scott Grimes
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Music: Marc Streitenfeld
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures