With a reported $225 million budget and a timeless tale at his disposal, for whatever reason director Ridley Scott chose to spend all that cash and legend on a hopelessly dreary prequel and origin story. On paper, the idea itself is an interesting one, and while the execution looks great – looks like $225 million — the telling fails where Robin Hood should most shine: The Department of Rousing. The point of the Robin Hood legend is not just to encourage us to fight for our God-given right to liberty, but also as a reminder that at every chance we have a duty to mock wrongful authority, ridicule pomposity, and give tyranny the high, hard middle finger; all while wooing a fetching Maid Marion, of course.
Robin Hood is about righteous defiance as practiced by a charming scoundrel. But unfortunately for those moviegoers expecting summer adventure and laughs, what you would think would be the obvious is completely lost on Scott and his screenwriter Brian Helgeland. Instead, they allow the story to get bogged down with a protagonist exhausted by war, no villain for him (or us) to focus on, and a needlessly complicated narrative involving false identities, palace intrigue, double agents and two wars.
Things open on a promising note. The date is 1199 and Robin (Crowe) is an archer for King Richard who is pillaging his way through France on his way back to England after the Crusades. Nothing happens you haven’t seen a hundred times before in one of these Medieval romps, but Scott knows how to structure, shoot and edit big action set-pieces like few others so the ole’ castle storm is exciting. 140 minutes later, however, you discover the hard way that this is where it all peaked.
One thing leads to another and as the second act turns, Robin finds himself in Nottingham with his band of interchangeable men (whose rare moments of merriment feel forced) and living in the home of Maid Marion (Cate Blanchett) and her father-in-law (Max Von Sydow – who’s looked the same age since 1973). For reasons not worth detailing, Robin’s there disguised as her husband and his son. But it’s all just a weak plot contrivance to have an old wise man explain to our hero his Destiny.
The story has a number of problems no amount of money and lovely set design can overcome. The first is that Crowe’s Robin Hood is about as fun to be around as a surly drunk. This isn’t the Oscar winner’s fault. He’s a wonderful actor capable of charm. The script just isn’t interested in, you know, the most famous aspect of our hero’s personality. For all the crap critics gave Kevin Costner both he and his 1991 hit delivered.
Another crippler is the lack of a Sheriff of Nottingham. Yes, he’s there, but on the sidelines and not much of an adversary. Unfortunately, there’s no replacement for him, either. Robin’s too busy finding his Destiny and the Palace is too busy intriguing for any of the conflict to get personal. Without a focused antagonist, nothing drives this Robin Hood. He has no goals, no flaws to overcome, and no mission.
There is romance, but absolutely zero chemistry between Crowe and Cate Blanchett’s Marion — a dull character made up of nothing warm, sweet or charming; just sharp, self-consciously feminist elbows. The word “maid” is never used. Can’t have that. Stick to the tired cliche.
Thematically, “Robin Hood” is all over the place. Because Robin is a blank slate waiting for a mythology fill up and his Obi Wan (Von Sydow) speaks only in platitudes, grasping what the film believes is worth fighting for is near impossible. It’s certainly not England, defeating Muslim hordes or a cold, corrupt Church. Near the end, the story tries to explain itself but even that gets muddled. In one scene, Robin speaks forcefully for liberty and for free men to be allowed to prosper from their own hard work. But in the closing moments Marion extols that the good life means that there’s “no rich, no poor, and fair shares for all.” This feather-headed jab – the final thematic word on the matter — pretty much knocks apart all the goodwill a third act built around the importance of the Magna Carta built up.
Is Robin Hood a Jeffersonian or a Reverend Wrightian?
No one really cares. As the closing moments prove, this is about Hollywood branding a franchise. Personally, I’d prefer Costner have another go before Scott and Crowe saddle up again.