Director : Ridley Scott
Screenplay : Brian Helgeland (story by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Russell Crowe (Robin Longstride), Cate Blanchett (Marion Loxley), Max von Sydow (Sir Walter Loxley), William Hurt (William Marshal), Mark Strong (Godfrey), Oscar Isaac (Prince John), Danny Huston (King Richard The Lionheart), Eileen Atkins (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Mark Addy (Friar Tuck), Matthew Macfadyen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Kevin Durand (Little John), Scott Grimes (Will Scarlet), Alan Doyle (Allan A'Dayle), Douglas Hodge (Sir Robert Loxley), Léa Seydoux (Isabella of Angoulême), Robert Pugh (Baron Baldwin)
Since I have long been of the opinion that Gladiator (2000) is one of the most overrated blockbusters in recent memory and probably the least deserving Best Picture Oscar winner of the last decade, I was not particularly enthused about the release of Robin Hood, which reteams director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe for the fourth time, but for the first time in similar genre territory. Thus, it is not surprising that Scott delves deep into the Gladiator playbook in trying to revive the mythical/historical legend for a new generation (Crowe even sports the same short haircut and beard), and the result is a glum, darkly serious, and slow-moving origin story that takes an exceedingly long time to get to the point where the movie should have actually begun.
Since there have been more than a hundred cinematic incarnations of the legendary bandit of Sherwood Forest (not to mention the hundreds, if not thousands, of appearances in prose form, beginning with 13th-century poems and songs), the idea of bringing Robin Hood to the big screen yet again demands a unique take, which this project originally had. The film began life as one of those legendary “hot” scripts, in this case a clever and unique spin on the story by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris (creators of the Showtime series Sleeper Cell) that reimagined it as kind of medieval police procedural with the Sherriff of Nottingham as the protagonist. Once Scott and Crowe got a hold of it, though, it was put through a torturous series of rewrites, which eventually turned it into a big, aspiring epic that never takes off, much less soars. Credited screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River, Green Zone) clearly wrote the script as the intended first part of a much grander narrative, but if the resulting film is any indication, there is little incentive to see where it goes.
The entirety of the story takes place before Robin Hood became a legendary figure; in fact, it takes place before he is even known as “Robin Hood.” Rather, we are introduced to Robin Longstride (Crowe), an archer in King Richard the Lionheart’s (Danny Huston) army who has been away from his home in England for many years fighting for the Crusades. After King Richard is killed in battle while trying to take a French castle, Robin, Little John (Kevin Durand), and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) take on the identity fallen knights and return to England with the king’s crown, which is turned over to his sniveling and egotistical younger brother, Prince John (Oscar Isaac). Robin, meanwhile, makes good on a promise to bring a message to a dead knight’s father, Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow), who begs him to maintain the ruse that he is his son and marry his widowed daughter-in-law Marion (Cate Blanchett) so that she does not lose her right to the family inheritance. Meanwhile, there is much betrayal afoot as the now-King John fires his brother’s previous advisor William Marshal (William Hurt) and installs the double-crossing Godfrey (Mark Strong, looking like Stanley Tucci’s evil twin brother), who is secretly working for the French to weaken the British defenses and allow for a full-on invasion.
Given that Scott’s primary imprint as a filmmaker is the visual quality of his productions, it should come as little surprise that Robin Hood looks impressive. The camerawork by cinematographer John Mathieson (in his fifth collaboration with Scott; they first worked together on Gladiator) captures the muddy, bloody harshness of medieval life with the kind of detail that makes your feel the damp and shiver at the chill. The film’s signature shot, which shows us an arrow firing from a bow in extreme slow motion and shallow focus, has a primal energy to it, although its single-minded clarity is relatively unique in the film’s otherwise generic and sometimes visually incoherent battle sequences.
Thus, like Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005), his most recent foray into medieval politics and war-mongering, Robin Hood is heavy on plot, but not on emotional connection. Far from the Technicolor ha-ha! exuberance of Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling Robin Hood (1938) or even Kevin Reynolds/Costner’s heavily romanticized variation from 1991, this is a film that constantly keeps its characters at arm’s length--in the case of Matthew Macfadyen’s Sheriff of Nottingham, this is quite literal, as he is little more than a walk-on in a few scenes. The idea of “Merry Men” may seem quaint in today’s more cynical and jaded era, but one wishes that Scott had managed to infuse at least some good humor into the film, which might have made the characters more meaningful. Instead, he seems to have directed all of his actors to play some form of misery, whether it be Robin’s identity crisis and lack of place in the world or the widowed Marian’s struggle through constant male domination that seems intent on putting her in her place (when these two get together, there are no sparks to fly because everything is so cold and damp to begin with). There are a few flashes of wit from Mark Addy’s bee-keeping Friar Tuck, but it’s hardly enough to inject life into this long, plodding origin story, which is less about how legends are born than it is about taking the familiar and making it dull.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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