I can’t say I was exactly chomping at the bit for another Robin Hood film, nor did I perceive this as something anybody else was really asking for, either. But if it was going to be done, the approach Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood takes is a pretty decent way to do it: it’s basically an origin story, picking up its telling of the all-too-familiar legend from a much earlier point than we’re used to. This gives the film a lot of freedom to do its own thing, which seems to me to be a far better way to go than the alternative of retelling the same story we’ve already seen countless times before—a story that was told quite well, 19 (!) years ago, by the Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Here, the screenplay by Brian Helgeland gets a chance to be creative, presenting a Robin (Russell Crowe) quite unlike the previous incarnations of the character. I don’t want to give too much of the story’s details away, but let’s just say that his family background is cleverly explained in a manner that adds an extra dimension of interest to the film, albeit one that doesn’t totally pan out as well as it could have (and, frankly, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense).
The events that lead to Robin becoming an outlaw—as he’s declared by film’s end by King John (Oscar Isaac)—are alternately exciting and tedious. The film opens with a depiction of a siege led by King Richard (Danny Huston) on his last Crusade, and the scale and spectacle of it are pretty impressive. Ridley Scott does an admirable job staging and shooting this and other similar sequences, keeping the action discernible while not indulging too much in the extreme close-up shaky-cam style—though he does use this technique at times, especially during the film’s climax. These battles are against the French, who are personified by a double-agent played by Mark Strong (and featuring, among his sidekicks, Denis Menochet, previously seen as Monsieur LaPadite in Inglourious Basterds).
When Robin Hood isn’t indulging in such epic battle scenes, it’s exploring these French-English relations, as well as the internal English politics of the time, and the movie becomes sort of a 12th-century political thriller. If that sounds boring to you, that’s because it kind of is. The film is over 2 hours long, and this is mostly because it spends great deals of time retreading the same sort of subject matter that was handled better in Braveheart. (Here it’s not Scotland fighting for its autonomy, it’s the northern territories of England fighting for representation. The rhetoric used—and the generically freedom-based themes explored—are nearly identical, though.)
Oh yeah, and there’s sort of a love story thrown in mostly as an afterthought, too. No tale of Robin Hood could be complete without a Marion, and Cate Blanchett takes her crack at that role here. She’s up to the task, but the film doesn’t really know what to do with her. She’s relegated to the background for almost the entire movie, until it decides that Robin needs something to fight for beyond his country and his identity, and so he professes his love to her more or less out of the blue. And then, as if in a further attempt to justify spending the money on an Oscar-winner for the part, the movie gives her Marion an additional role to play during its lengthy final battle, and this comes even more out of the blue.
This all adds up to a pretty uneven movie. It’s an origin story, telling the history of a well-known character from an angle we’ve not seen before; it’s a sprawling war movie, with epic battles on a large scale; it’s a period-political movie that tries a little too hard to be inspiring and relevant; and it’s a little bit of a love story, just because it feels that it has to be. Sometimes it has great action sequences, but at other times it plods along, trying to balance all of these elements and only partially succeeding. It’s fun to see how this Robin Hood goes about it, though: it features an accomplished cast, led by a good director, and takes place on vast outdoor sets—shot majestically by John Mathieson—that enhance the epic feel the movie’s striving for.