A film review by Craig J. Koban May 18, 2010


2010, PG-13, 131 mins.


Robin: Russell Crowe / Marion: Cate Blanchett / Sir Walter: Max von Sydow / William Marshal: William Hurt / Godfrey: Mark Strong / Prince John: Oscar Isaac / Richard: Danny Huston

Directed by Ridley Scott / Written by Brian Helgeland

There have been so many cinematic permutations of the Robin Hood legend that I have totally lost count over the years.  A cursory bit of research on my part has uncovered more than 30 Hollywood treatments of the mythical folk hero that stole from the rich in order to give to the poor, with perhaps three standing out: the boisterous and lively 1938 Technicolor classic THE ADVENTURES OF THE ROBIN HOOD with Errol Flynn (arguable the most entertaining), 1976’s ROBIN AND MARION (featuring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as middle-aged lovers) and, yes, the much maligned 1991 ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, featuring a very American – in voice and sprit – Kevin Costner. 

When I heard that yet another ROBIN HOOD film was to be made, I initially balked at the idea: what fresh angle could possibly be embedded in a newer treatment for 21st Century consumption that has not already been tried?  Then I heard that director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe planned to make a new HOOD film their fifth collaboration together and that was enough to wet my initial appetitive.   Scott is essentially one of the most technically astute filmmakers of all-time and is able to mould his style to just about any subject matter and time period, and Crowe himself has a proven resume for handling tough, rugged, and courageous action heroes.  

This should be a match made in Nottingham-heaven. 

Alas…it’s not.   

This new film version of the title hero and his band of merry men is essentially a reboot and an origin story (think ROBIN HOOD BEGINS) and serves as a prequel, of sorts, to the overriding Robin Hood mythology that most lay people are familiar with.  This re-imagining (provided by the very capable screenwriter Brian Helgeland (GREEN ZONE, PAYBACK, MYSTIC RIVER, and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL), attempts to integrate together the centuries-old mythology with history, which is one part of the film’s undoing: the 13th Century outlaw owes more to fiction than fact, so any heavy handed attempt to submerge him within the context of history seems kind of redundant.   

Furthermore, Helgeland and Scott seem so immersed and steadfast in cementing the character within actual history that it has the unfortunate side-effect of making their Robin Hood a persona that is a victim to a ponderous, dull, and at times painfully slow moving picture.  There are clear cut attempts to make this version breathe with the gritty and battle-logged aesthetic of, say, GLADIATOR, but in doing so the film misses some serious opportunities to be frivolously fun, spirited, and carry an aura of swashbuckling adventure and excitement.  Instead of being magical, cheerful and light-hearted (with just the right nuance for it not to feel campy), ROBIN HOOD is dour and dreary to the point of inspiring ample watch-checking.  Not a good sign for any ROBIN HOOD film. 

ROBIN HOOD begins by introducing us to Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) as a loyal and dependable archer to King Richard the Lionheart (the commanding, but underused Danny Huston).  During a particularly problematic siege of a French castle, the King is killed, but Robin and his comrades obtain his crown and vow to return it to London so that Price John (Oscar Isaac) can assume his rightful place on the English thrown.  John, right from the get-go, is a fairly shady and duplicitous cretin and his main goal when he becomes King is to make money, via any means necessary.  He appoints a man named Godfrey (Mark Strong, always coldly authoritative, even when playing underwritten roles like this) to oversee tax collecting, but he is secretly working for the King of France, which complicates matters considerably.  

Unavoidably, Godfrey and Robin find themselves as bitter enemies, especially when Godfrey makes an attack against Nottingham, a village where Robin has sought refuge and has established the identity as the son of Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow).  Sir Walter was a friend of Robin’s real father, who in turn was assassinated for writing a charter of rights for the common man (Robin’s memories of this and his dad are some of the film’s most unhealthily developed subplots).  When Robin arrives in Nottingham he hatches a plan to impersonate Sir Walter’s son (whom was killed in battle) in order to protect his widow, Marion (a feisty and sassy Cate Blanchett) and her property.  Romance between Robin and Marion is initially and predictably mellow, but it later brews with a passion (albeit rather mechanically) until Robin, his loyal confidants (which include many familiar faces to Hood lore), Marion, and a battalion of British forces find themselves in a bloody battle with Godfrey and the French forces that are trying to invade England. 

Before anyone cries foul, here me out: Yes, the most basic of Robin Hood elements are all here in abundance: Robin is still a master of stealth and of the bow and arrow.  Yes, his famous “merry men” that includes the likes of Little John (the not-so-little Kevin Durand) and Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) are here.  Yes, Nottingham is a prominent place in the film, and, yes, there still remains a Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfayden).  Yet, ROBIN HOOD seems oddly overstuffed when it comes to its characters and focus.  The Sheriff himself, for example, has usually been the obligatory villain of this universe, but here his role is so small and so inconsequentially written that he could have been excised from the film altogether.  The same can be true of one of Prince John’s Barons (played well, but all-too-briefly by William Hurt) who shows up here and there in the film when the script deems it convenient.  The only intriguing character of the lot is arguably Godfrey, but his motives are so sketchily hinted at that we have to kind of remind ourselves that he is the chief bad guy. 

The film, at 140 minutes, at times feels like 240.  Despite an action-packed opening section, ROBIN HOOD becomes narratively sluggish and slow moving as it progresses, not to mention that, despite its inherent length, it never truly feels as epic in terms of story scope as it wants to be.  There are certainly historical-political flourishes sprinkled through the plot to give the film some thematic weight, but adding these dimensions only further neuters the type of infectious gallantry and derring-do that audiences, no doubt, crave out of these types of films.  All of this silly attention to historical realism has stunted one obvious element: fun.

The film also fails at generating a legitimate emotional buy-in to the underlining material.  By the time Robin et al are engaging in a ferocious beach battle against Godfrey and the French, I found it hard to really care (not to mention that the climax generates some real incredulous eye-rolling when it is revealed that Marion, completely clad in armor, has joined her lover on the battlefield…sure…yup…uh-huh).  Then there is the central romance between Robin and Marion themselves, and even though I like Blanchett’s feistiness and enthusiasm as Marion, the film rarely creates a plausible impression of love between the two.  There is a semi-kinky moment during which Marion assists Robin with removing his chain mail armor, but even moments like that fail to have any understated eroticism.  The Robin and Marion in this film fall in love more because of the contrivances of the plot than out of an innate and mutual feeling of affection for one another.  When they do lock lips late in the film and Robin tells her he that loves her, it feels insincere and half-hearted. 

Part of the largest weakness of ROBIN HOOD may be the actor playing the legend himself.  Crowe certainly has nothing to prove in terms of his action hero street cred, but the closing-in-on-50 performer is the oldest to ever play Robin Hood, and it is his maturity and solemnity that seems a bit at odds with the capricious Robin Hood icon himself.  There is rarely a false moment in Crowes’ performance here (he is as stalwart and dependable as ever), but he creates such a generically brooding and flat portrait of the hero that he never emerges as a joyously alive creation.  What he lacks is a sense of youthful enthusiasm and reckless spontaneity and whimsy.  Just think of what a younger and more charmingly mischievous actor like, for example, Paul Bettany or Michael Fassbender could have done with the role.  See what I mean?  Crowe is one of our greatest movie talents, but his long-time association with Scott should not have automatically precluded his involvement in ROBIN HOOD: he’s simply miscast here. 

Whereas the film certainly lacks in high-flying and thrilling exuberance it does make up for in terms of technical aptitude: Scott has never made a bad looking picture, and in ROBIN HOOD he once again shows supreme command at given us action set pieces that we have come to expect out of him: we get flaming arrows, clashing swords, galloping horses, battering rams, battalions of human (and CGI) warriors, and all-out wanton medieval mayhem that has made Scott such a directorial taskmaster (the final siege at the film’s conclusion is lavish and epically envisioned, even though the actual action is, at times, tricky to follow).  Scott knows how to make a ROBIN HOOD that looks every part of its multi-million dollar summer-blockbuster budget, but as rich and textured as the film appears, its story juxtaposed around the visual sheen is just a hollow vessel that left me feeling empty.   

The film’s end title cards are ominously noteworthy: “And so the legend begins…”  Huh?  I was kind of expecting that the legend would begin from the opening frame.  Instead of hurtling viewers headfirst into a newly revitalized and envisioned Robin Hood film universe, this movie takes the cumbersome and ultimately dime-a-dozen approach of giving us a token origin story with a promise of high adventure to come without fulfilling that promise.  ROBIN HOOD is not so much a dreadful film as it is a totally squandered opportunity to breath new life into an age-old myth.  Just consider the original story treatment of the film, entitled NOTTINGHAM, which had the Sheriff and Robin Hood engaging in role reversal with the former being the sympathetic hero and the latter being more the traditional villain.  

Now that would be worth seeing. 

  H O M E