The first time director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe joined forces the result was the Oscar winning Gladiator. The two rejoin to tackle period action again but this time in telling the story of Robin Hood. This is not the story that audiences are familiar with, that of the noble thief who stole from the rich to feed the poor. The entire film is set before Robin takes up his bow against King John. It tells the story of what happened when the skilled archer finally returned home from the crusades and the events that would drive him to proudly wear the title of outlaw. It’s a concept that could have worked and for almost two thirds of the film it does. However by the end most viewers will experience a sense of frustration with this new take on the British folk hero.
In Robin Hood King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Houston of X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is returning to England with his army from a fruitless crusade. Along the way he’s stopping to plunder and raid whatever castles happen to be along the route. Amongst his many soldiers is the archer Robin Longstride (Crowe) who is a commoner eager to return home. After Richard is killed in battle Robin and his closest friends (his merry men if you will) pose as knights in order to get passage back to England by bringing the crown of the fallen king back to the royal family. Robin specifically poses as Sir Robert Loxley, a fallen knight who requested that Robin return his sword to his father Walter (Max Von Sydow of Shutter Island) in Nottingham. Once the crown is returned and place on the head of Richard’s younger brother John (Oscar Isaac of Body of Lies,) Robin goes to Nottingham where he meets Robert Loxley’s widow, the maid Marion (Cate Blanchett of The Aviator.) Walter asks that Robin maintain his ruse as Robert Loxley so that Marion is not forced to forfeit her land. In the background of all of this a traitorous friend to the king called Godfrey (Mark Strong of Sherlock Holmes) is secretly in league with France. Godfrey cuts a swath through England collecting taxes by violent means so as to enrage the people of Northern England into revolt, causing the country to be weak and ripe for invasion by the French. Robin and his men find themselves at odds with both the newly crowned king and the quickly opposing French forces and they must find a way to unite England against the invading army.
Astute readers might have noticed that robbing the rich to help the poor plays no part in the plot description of Robin Hood. The entire film is set before Robin takes up the mantle of an outlaw. It actually deals more with the politics that lead up to the creation of the Magna Carta (a document guaranteeing certain liberties to all citizens) than with the actions that made Robin Hood famous. Herein lies the primary problem with the film, it functions as a prequel and never gets to what made Robin a legend. A good comparison would be if Batman Begins had Bruce Wayne donning the mask and cape only in the last two minutes of the film then there was a caption “And so Batman began…” and the credits roll. Not to belabor the comparison but the reason Batman Begins worked is because it took half the movie building up to the title character and then the second half of Batman doing what fans love. Robin Hood is all build up and no pay off, had the film thrust Robin into his thieving destiny around the halfway mark (which is almost does but then the political angle takes over) it could have been very satisfying. The first half of the film works extremely well and creates characters that are fun to watch. Specifically the bond between Robin and his fellow archers is wonderful and it would have been so much fun to watch them stealing back tax money, but it just never happens.
Most of what does work in Robin Hood is the performances. Russell Crowe has never lacked for charisma and he puts it to good use here. He’s able to be deathly serious when it’s needed but also nicely playful when with his friends or Marion. Which brings up Cate Blanchett, it’s a bit of a relief just to have a Marion that is age appropriate to Crowe and the two of them have a very nicely balanced chemistry. Marion as shown here is a much stronger woman (she’s had to manage without her husband around to run the house for 10 years) than is normally portrayed in Robin Hood movies. Oscar Isaac is extremely well cast as King John, he carefully plays the spoiled aspects of the character that audiences expect but also is able to make him believable as a royal. He even has a few scant moments of leadership which all flow together surprisingly well. Mark Strong as Godfrey is keeping up his string of villain rolls (from films like Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass and Stardust) and he’s quite well suited for it. Strong always has a strong sense of danger and violence to him and works very well as the heavy. There’s also some admirable work being done by William Hurt as a trusted adviser to the late King Richard.
Solid performances and a very strong first half can’t save Robin Hood from finally sinking under it’s own weight by the end. The whole thing goes off the rails just following what might be the most enjoyable scene where Robin and his men actually do some thieving. This is the point where the great bandit could have started doing what we all know him for. Instead after this scene the film takes a left turn into forgotten memories, civil liberties and grand speeches that seem to have been shoe-horned into the film. A quick look at the history of the script shows the likely reasons why the film goes so askew. The original idea was a film with a much lighter tone in which the Sheriff of Nottingham was the lead and Robin Hood himself was kind of a jerk. Director Ridley Scott’s dissatisfaction with the concept lead to a revision where Robin actually masqueraded as the Sheriff and then the final version where Robin masqueraded as Loxley. In the mist of all this script reworking Robin Hood himself has lost his purpose and as a result the film overall fizzles out simply by failing to meet the basic expectations of a Robin Hood film. Given that stealing from the rich practically never comes into play there is no need for this to be a story of Robin Hood, it could have been about ANY returning crusader and might have been better if it had been.
Robin Hood had the cast and the pedigree to be a thrilling new take on the classic legend. It even starts out with so much promise in it’s first half. Unfortunately when the focus shifts clumsily onto the origins of the Magna Carta the entire film loses the flair and fun that are the trademarks of any good Robin Hood film. There’s a part of me that hopes that the cast and director re-team for a sequel in which the audience will actually get to see Robin doing what he does best. Alas it seems far more likely this film will stand alone as a strange prequel to the folk legend.