Robin Hood, yet another product from the factory that churns out yearly collaborations between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, is exactly what you'd expect from these two: A serious, downcast attempt at evoking a particularly painful period in history using source material that is known more for its upbeat cheeriness than its glum view of British royalty and epic battle scenes. That being said, Robin Hood manages to rise above being just another collaboration between Scott and Crowe. It doesn't try to supplant our notion of Robin Hood the swashbuckler, nor does it purport to be the true story of Sherwood Forrest. Instead, this is the "Before They Were Stars" version of Robin Hood, before Robin of Loxley was declared outlaw, and, as a soldier under King Richard, I suppose he wouldn't have had many reasons to make merry.
Russell Crowe: Robin
Cate Blanchett: Marion
Max von Sydow: Sir Walter
William Hurt: William Marshal
Mark Strong: Sir Godfrey
Oscar Isaac: Prince John
Danny Huston: Richard
Really Tied the Room Together
In what has become de rigueur for a Ridley Scott action-adventure epic, what's at stake here is freedom, here in the form of the Magna Carta, which didn't really promise much in the way of freedom to those whom Robin Hood eventually stole for. If you guess that Russel Crowe stands on a staircase and delivers a rousing speech to a group of men who'd sooner abandon England to the French than join with Prince John (Oscar Isaac), you've probably seen a couple of these. If that's the case, then you won't be at all surprised to learn that the film ends with one of those gigantic, CGI-laden battle scenes that've been in fashion since, oh, Gladiator. Ho-hum, nothing new there.
But Robin Hood does offer something, I think, even if it's merely that Ridley Scott is very good at what he does, crafting a taut, at times compelling movie that is shot with the kind of clarity and lucidity that is no longer common to historical epics, which have long forsaken plot and character in the name of the almighty dollar, which insists upon things blowing up. The plot comes together in a way that is nice and convincing, which is to say that our heroes aren't plopped before Hadrian's Wall and asked to navigate a maze whereupon they'll find the plot elements and side characters necessary to complete the familiar quest.
Instead, Robin meets his merry men as soldiers. There's an elaborate plot afoot to kill King John and turn the people of England against Prince Richard, but, in the aftermath of a battle, Robin and company run across John's funeral procession, which is waylaid by a traitor, Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong). Not knowing that, Robin and co. fight off the French and rescue the crown, which is delivered safely to Prince Richard. Almost immediately, Richard decides to collect back taxes, enraging the rich and landed, and Robin goes off to give a sword to Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), as per the request of his dying son.
Things are going poorly in Nottingham. The sheriff is corrupt, the children are wild, the men have been away fighting the Crusades for a decade, and food is scarce. Under those circumstances, Maid Marion (Cate Blanchett) has assumed control of Sir Walter's farm and, for the sake of the town, pretends to be married to Robin, who poses as Sir Walter's son. Robin grows attached to Marion, Sir Walter, and the town. Meanwhile, Sir Godfrey leads a battalion of disguised Frenchmen through the English countryside, slaughtering whole towns due to their inability to pay taxes. The people are further outraged. There is talk of a revolt. There is talk of French invasion. And it turns out that Robin is related to the philosopher whose ideas are expressed in the Magna Carta.
All of that seems of type, and, to a certain extent, it is. I won't deny that. But on an early summer evening with nothing better to do, Robin Hood was surprisingly entertaining. There are problems, particularly with Maid Marion. She is treated as the proto-typical medieval woman-of-her-own-means, which is all very well and good until you consider that, beyond owning property (in a way) and running a farm, she has no true character. Not only is that a waste of a resplendent actress, but the romance between Marion and Robin Hood is again stock, as her dislike for Robin is slowly melted by his rougeish charm and feats of manliness. And, while I hate saying it, having the main woman in a movie like this buck gender roles, throw on a suit of armor and shoot arrows into a crowd from a hilltop is almost as sexist as leaving her at home for the giant battle sequence.
But! Yes, the film was still entertaining. Flawed, but entertaining. Factory produced...but you get the idea. The thought of an unrated DVD with 14 extra minutes makes me cringe, as films like this tend to be overlong to begin with, but Ridley Scott is a director who can only stand to see his vision compromised for so long, even if his vision is muted and stock. Give the guy credit for working the system, and for making movies that play just fine when your brain's turned off.