Early in the production of Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” (then going by the title “Nottingham”), there were rumors that suggested his version of the legendary English archer would be a new spin on the familiar tale. Instead of Robin Hood rising to defend the poor against the evil rich and their law-enforcement lackey the Sheriff of Nottingham, it would instead be the Sheriff who is actually the hero, and Robin Hood an outlaw with less than noble motives. Later, there were suggestions that Crowe might actually play both Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and that the longstanding enemies would be re-envisioned as one-and-the-same man, using the ploy to trick his noblemen employers from discovering his benevolent side job. Alas, both of those very awesome sounding twists were dropped in favor of what we have now – a film billed as “the untold story” of Robin Hood. Oh, what might have been…
Set in 12th Century England, “Robin Hood” chronicles the adventures of Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe), a common archer in the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) during his 10-year Crusade to the Holy Land. His Crusade effectively over and his army badly demoralized, Richard is headed back home, sacking every French castle they cross to fund their retreat. After Lionheart is killed in battle, Robin and his merry men decide that 10 years is more than enough service to the Crown, and ditches the army for home. On their way back to Jolly ol England, they run across a French ambush led by the duplicitous Englishman Godfrey (Mark Strong), and the badly injured Sir Robert Loxley. In a moment of weakness, Robin agrees to take the dying Knight’s sword home to his father.
Back in England, squirrely Prince John (Oscar Isaac), the next in line to the throne, greets news of his brother Richard’s death with less than Princely jubilation. Immediately, John assigns Godfrey, unaware of the man’s treachery, to begin collecting owed taxes by any means necessary. Godfrey does this by bringing over French raiders to sack English towns, quickly turning the country’s Lords against their new King. Meanwhile, Robin arrives in Nottingham, where he delivers the sad news to Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow) and Robert’s beautiful and suffering wife, Marion (Cate Blanchett), who only knew her husband for one week before he went off to the Crusade. Here, the kindly Lord makes Robin a deal he can’t refuse: pretend to be the dead Robert, so that Marion will retain their possessions once Walter passes. Thanks to a combination of chivalry, Marion’s soulful glances, and the ability to open the door when opportunity presents itself, Robin agrees.
Much of “Robin Hood” is common man Robin falling in love with the Lady Marion, who slowly but surely comes to accept him as a replacement husband. Marion Loxley was originally supposed to be played by the much younger Sienna Miller, but it’s director Ridley Scott’s good luck (as well as the audience’s) that Miller, for whatever reason, was replaced by Cate Blanchett. The much more mature actress brings instant credibility to the burgeoning love story between Robin and Marin, a necessity given that it takes up nearly an hour of the film’s two-hour plus running time. Star Russell Crowe is surprisingly muted in the role, and it’s really Blanchett who does most of the heavy lifting to make their relationship onscreen believable. Eventually, though, Prince John’s stupidity and Godfrey’s French sucking comes to center stage, as the English must put aside their differences to battle the invading French forces.
You’ll notice that there is very little outlaw activity by Robin in the four preceding paragraphs. That’s because “Robin Hood”, despite being about the famous outlaw who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, barely has more than five minutes of total “outlawing” in the entire movie. Honestly, though, you could have changed all the character names but kept the setting and time period and everything else, and no one would ever thought to connect the film with the Robin Hood legend. As an Origins Story, “Robin Hood” veers so much from the character’s oft-told mythology that it doesn’t really work. As another Ridley Scott period movie where brawny men carry huge broadswords and whack each other over the head with them, it’s another very good action-adventure movie, and certainly a capable addition to his resume when it comes to the genre.
Of the supporting cast, only Max von Sydow really makes much of an impression as a man who knows more about Robin than he does. Matthew Macfadyen, as the sleazy Sheriff of Nottingham, is appropriately sleazy and unlikeable, but otherwise has little to do. Robin Hood’s merry men get loud and rambunctious (and dare I say, very merry) throughout the film, but they, too, don’t have much of a mayor role to play in the film. Of the sidekicks, Kevin Durand gets the best lines, though I have absolutely no idea what kind of accent he’s using in the movie, though it’s certainly entertaining. Will Scarlet (played by Scott Grimes), usually the second most important outlaw next to Robin Hood in all the tales I’ve seen, is barely a blip on the radar. Also amusing is Mark Addy as Friar Tuck, who spends more time brewing mead than he does doing Friar, well, stuff.
The film’s other major side character is William Hurt as William Marshal, a pivotal character who seems to know what’s going on at every time, and is satisfied to work in the background. Too bad Hurt looks absolutely bored throughout the film, with his one notable moment being a brief but excellent confrontation with Godfrey early in the movie. Speaking of whom, Mark Strong, as the bad guy, is one-note but menacing, so I suppose that means he did his job. It’s too bad his character spends all his time scheming with the French and doesn’t get much of a backstory. Why is he so determined to destroy England by betraying it at every corner? I have no idea. The movie never gives us a reason to understand his actions, save he’s the bad guy. As the other sorta bad guy, Oscar Isaac is very amusing as the hapless Prince John, and for a moment you almost start to like the guy, but of course he goes and does something that completely pisses you off, as is also his job.
Unlike Scott’s “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven”, “Robin Hood” comes into theaters with a PG-13 rating. That shows up in the film’s battle scenes, which are nowhere as bloody as Scott’s previous two outings into period broadswords-and-sandals land. Not that Scott skimps on the violence, mind you; they’re there, but they just aren’t as graphically depicted as in previous films. There are a couple of arrow-through-the-neck shots, and stabbings with swords are certainly the order of the day. The film’s bloodiest scene is actually saved for the very end, with Crowe’s Robin Hood dripping blood as he fights Godfrey at the beach. You’ve probably seen the scene in the trailers, including the moment where Robin takes aim with an arrow while blood drips from a gash in his forehead. Scott somewhat makes up for the hardcore violence with sweeping views of the lush English countryside. Thanks to its Hollywood budget, “Robin Hood” is one good looking film.
If you go into “Robin Hood” expecting it to be an actual origin story for Robin Hood as advertised, you may leave disappointed. (Actually, the film’s original title, “Nottingham” is very appropriate, and they should have saved “Robin Hood” for the sequel.) But if you were expecting the same kind of action-adventure that Scott has delivered in the past with “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven”, with a mature love story being a very big part of it, then you’ll be more than satisfied. Scott is in his wheelhouse with a movie like “Robin Hood”, with its massive production sets, dirty and grimy (re: authentic) living conditions, huge armies at his disposal, and very badass men with broadswords that know how to use them. Scott has already said that he has envisioned a trilogy, and knows exactly where to take a sequel (or two) should “Robin Hood’s” box office prove fruitful. Here’s hoping it does, because I’d love to see more of Robin Hood and Marion’s adventures.
Ridley Scott (director) / Brian Helgeland, Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris (screenplay)
CAST: Russell Crowe … Robin Longstride
Cate Blanchett … Marion Loxley
Max von Sydow … Sir Walter Loxley
William Hurt … William Marshal
Mark Strong … Godfrey
Oscar Isaac … Prince John
Danny Huston … King Richard The Lionheart
Mark Addy … Friar Tuck
Matthew Macfadyen … Sheriff of Nottingham
Kevin Durand … Little John
Scott Grimes … Will Scarlet