Robin Hood
directed by Ridley Scott
(Universal, 2010)

The legend of Robin Hood was never meant to be an epic. But, in this latest version of the film, with Russell Crowe in the title role and director Ridley Scott at the helm, we see Robin leading a vast army of Englishmen to the beaches at Dover to repel a massive French invasion that looks a lot like D-Day on Normandy. In fact, watch the scenes where arrows skewer the water as French soldiers bravely try to reach the shore from those suspiciously modern-looking troop ships, and tell me you don't think of that first dramatic scene in Saving Private Ryan.

I went into this film with some trepidition. After all, Robin Hood has been portrayed many times in the movies, and not always successfully. Would Crowe's Robin Hood be as spirited as Patrick Bergin's? As lifeless as Kevin Costner's? As timeless as Errol Flynn's? As crusty as Sean Connery's? Would Crowe, who so perfectly filled the naval boots of Patrick's O'Brian's Captain Aubrey in Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, flex his muscle as co-producer enough to make a Robin Hood we can believe in?

Alas, no.

First, you must forget everything you know and love about the Robin Hood tale. All that stuff about protecting the poor Saxons from the depredations of Prince John while King Richard is off crusading -- well, that's been discarded. Much the Miller's son? Not here. Robbing from the rich and giving to the poor? Gone. Hey, what about meeting Little John at a river crossing, where they earn each other's respect and friendship after a duel with quarterstaves? No, no, they met over a shell game in France, where John accused Robin of cheating.

Now, in what is being billed as a prequel to the legend, Robin Longstride (Crowe) is an archer in Richard's army, sieging a French castle en route back to England. When Richard dies, Robin hies off to England as quick as he can, accompanied by his loyal chums Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle), along with new pal Little John (Kevin Durand), all of whom are woefully underused in this film. Their escape plans are scattered, however, when they run across a French ambush of the knights sent to return Richard's crown to London, and soon Robin is decked out as the late Sir Robert Loxley (Hey ... isn't that usually Robin's real name??) and shacking up with Loxley's widow Marion (Cate Blanchett). Sure, Marion and her blind father-in-law, Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow) are sad to hear of Robert's death, but if there's no man of the house, the Loxleys will lose their lands when Walter inevitably croaks. So they decide to pull the wool over everyone's eyes and hail Robin as the returned Robert -- and, because everyone in the household, village and surrounding countryside is an idiot, no one will notice that he's not the same guy. Oh, wait, someone might -- because someone knows he already killed Robert over in France.

But then Godfrey (Mark Strong), who has some allegiance to King John (Oscar Isaac) but even more to King Philip of France (either shy or embarrassed; either way, an uncredited role), begins taxing and killing and burning up Barnsdale way in order to raise the northern nobles against John and cause civil war so Philip can invade. So Robin, as Robert, is thrust into a leadership role, gives a few rousing speeches and rides side by side with King John, his mortal enemy, to roust the French invaders, until jealous John can outlaw Robin for being just too darn popular.

Got all that?

Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was grim. Crowe's Robin Hood is darkly ponderous, with only a few light-hearted moments to give you a brief, false hope that the film might loosen up a bit. It doesn't.

There are a lot of problems with this film, actually, and storming the beaches of Normandy -- I mean, Dover -- is hardly the worst of them. Maid Marion in armor and leading troops in battle is, come to think of it, probably the worst of them.

But there are plenty more to choose from.

The orphans in the wood, for instance, remind me of nothing so much as a band of Neverland's Lost Boys, and I kept watching the trees for Tinkerbell.

Robin has no memory of his past. He comes to Nottingham because of a promise to a dying knight, but blind Walter Loxley apparently knows the skinny on Robin's lost history -- and all he has to do is tell Robin to close his eyes and everything comes crashing back. And what do you know, it turns out Robin's daddy did love him after all.

There's the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen), Robin Hood's erstwhile foe, but it's hard to complain since he doesn't actually do anything in this movie.

You know how Robin Hood is supposed to be England's greatest archer? Ridley Scott didn't know that, apparently, because when it comes time to duke it out with the French, Robin ignores the archers on the cliffside, grabs a war hammer and joins the cavalry -- although he does manage to produce a longbow, out of his pocket, I suppose, just when he needs one.

The Magna Carta? You know, one of the most important political documents in world history? Robin's idea.

So, we've got shades of Braveheart mixed with pieces of The Patriot, seasoned with Peter Pan and The Return of Martin Guerre and a pinch of Saving Private Ryan ... but, so far as I can see, not really anything at all from freakin' Robin Hood. You'll also notice I didn't include a romance in the list, and that's because this Robin and Marion lack passion until -- well, until that scene where Marion is dressed like a guy. Read into that what you will.

Still, I can't really fault the cast. Crowe and Blanchett are both amazing actors, and they give it their best effort despite a shoddy script and weak direction. The supporting cast, too, gave a yeoman's effort throughout.

I recall thinking 1994's First Knight would have been far better if it hadn't pretended to be about King Arthur but had, instead, been promoted simply as a light medieval fantasy. Robin Hood suffers the same affliction. If Ridley Scott and scriptwriter Brian Helgeland wanted to use the name, they should have made at least some pretense of using the character and his existing legend instead of making everything up from scratch.

review by
Tom Knapp

19 June 2010

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