Director Ridley Scott is back with his third sword-and-sandals epic in ten years, reuniting with Gladiator star Russell Crowe to take on the legendary story of the ultimate outlaw: Robin Hood. Needless to say, the pairing has raised expectations as it looks more or less like a sequel to the aforementioned Best Picture winner.
In this version, the latest of many, Crowe plays Robin Longstride, an archer prepared to come home to England after years of fighting abroad under Richard the Lionheart. After Richard is killed in battle, Robin assumes the identity of slain knight Robin of Locksley and vows to return the man's sword to his father, who lives in Nottingham. By doing so, he unknowingly inserts himself into a political game of cat and mouse and a plot that could lead to the destruction of England's sovereignty. Yes, this isn't your daddy's version of Robin Hood.
The movie is intended to be "the real story behind the legend," and while no one knows the truth about the outlaw or whether he even existed, this 2010 version does go out of its way to appear to be the basis for what audiences expect. The film is gritty and serious, bypassing melodrama and the charismatic, somewhat comical characters most people are used to. Many of the most common Robin Hood elements are merely alluded to or depicted in a "factual" way, including the primary merry men: Little John, Will Scarlett and Friar Tuck all have fairly small and ultimately inconsequential roles in the tale. Then again, even though it isn't advertised as such, Robin Hood can best be described as a prequel - so it doesn't have to adhere to what's expected.
Unfortunately, audience expectations can be dangerous to toy with, and Ridley Scott and writer Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) toy with them big time. Universal's marketing department made the picture look like we were going to get the classic Robin Hood tale, albeit with a grittier approach and more warfare. The trailers showed Robin shooting an arrow through a certificate that declares him an outlaw, and that's all we really needed to know. Except, as it turns out, that scene is in the final minutes of the film.
For a good proportion of audience members, the 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves still stands as the quintessential version to beat. Regardless of what you think of Kevin Costner's accent, or lack thereof, it's an entertaining, action-packed and enjoyable movie. Twenty years later, it still remains the "modern" Robin Hood, which means that Scott really had to hit the bull's-eye for his film to be seen as an improvement. His arrow more or less hits one of the outer rings.
This new Robin Hood is good. It's entertaining, never boring and has some well-done action sequences. Crowe once again delivers a fine performance, and Cate Blanchett is, as expected, quite good. Max von Sydow and William Hurt are also good in supporting roles. All in all, it's a legitimate entry in the sword-and-sandal genre.
Legitimate, but not excellent. Scott, despite more than a few box office flubs in recent years, is one of the best directors working today. Despite their general reputations, both Body of Lies and Kingdom of Heaven were superb, visually stunning films that featured excellent performances and tense action. American Gangster, one of Scott's less interesting movies (and one that also starred Russell Crowe), was still a critical and financial success. So, with Gladiator as a benchmark (not to mention Blade Runner and Alien), Robin Hood should have been better.
The primary issue with the movie is that it suffers from a lack of focus. The first half exemplifies this, as Scott attempts to set up a variety of circumstances that will, eventually, come to a head and spell make-or-break for England. The movie jumps around between a variety of settings, establishing the characters, plot elements and, most notably, the villains, of which there are several (and the Sherriff of Nottingham is not one of them). It quickly becomes clear that the movie is not as much about Robin Hood the man but about a plot by France to take over England, of which Robin Hood is merely a convenient player. Unfortunately, the story, as it's presented, bounces around while it should be establishing its central character.
Things do improve in the second half as Robin Hood really kicks into high gear, but the movie just can't shake the fact that we've seen better material elsewhere. As the tale of Robin Hood is concerned, the story has been told better before; for instance, Prince of Thieves is simply more entertaining, more satisfying and more engaging, with superior character development and action sequences. As for medieval epics, even Scott has directed several much better movies. Gladiator was consistently entertaining and got you excited for each and every action sequence; watch it again and then tell me you didn't get pumped up as the gladiators stand behind the coliseum doors, waiting to charge into battle. And even Kingdom of Heaven, though for some reason not highly regarded, built up suspense leading into each battle. Robin Hood doesn't deliver in the same way.
Robin Hood is worth seeing, and is by no means the disaster that King Arthur was, but it pales in comparison to some of the best medieval epics. The movie is neither as visually engrossing or adrenaline-fueled as many of Scott's other pictures, and is definitely not as entertaining as Prince of Thieves.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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