The myth of Nottingham’s favourite son has been interpreted more times that a contemporary audience can count. Ranging from the energetic exuberance of Errol Flynn in the 1938 classic to the laddish incarnation of the BBC’s big-budget series, it seems that Robin Hood has never been out of the spotlight for long. Those who can cast their minds back to the summer of 1991 may recall that cinematic audiences were offered not one, but two interpretations of the legendary outlaw: the spirited Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and a far more glum affair starring Patrick Bergin.
The latest offering is an adaptation that, on paper at least, looks like a winning formula: Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott have teamed up yet again to offer a fresh take on the medieval archer. The combination of Crowe and Scott has proved to be successful, with Gladiator and American Gangster being among their most notable collaborations. Playing the titular hero Crowe’s acting muscles match the ones on his chest, combining respected thespian with highly convincing action star. Scott’s ability to marry engaging drama with visceral action is without question. Cast a renowned actress like Cate Blanchett as Maid Marion and throw a hefty budget (rumoured to be in the region of $250 million) into the mix and what could go wrong? Sadly, quite a lot.
As the film opens, we are introduced to Robin Longstride and his companions, fellow archers Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle), as they ready themselves for an assault on a French citadel. Richard the Lionheart’s third (and final) crusade is at an end and, as the king leads his army back towards English shores, he finds time to plunder his way across the continent. Longstride and his companions are quickly established as salt-of-the-earth yeomen whose frank honesty with regard to the king’s attitude to war earns them a place in the stocks, where they sit out the final assault on the citadel. Richard is killed by a crossbow bolt (one of the few historical accuracies within the film) and Longstride and co. find themselves leaderless and without passage home. The trio reluctantly join forces with muscle-bound hothead John Little (the scandalously underused Kevin Durand) and make for the shore with the hope of finding a ship to return them safely to England. Fate, however, has more in store for Robin and his merry men, and they soon find themselves roped into returning not only the crown (intended for the amoral Prince John, heir to the throne), but also a family sword to the elderly Lord Loxley (Max von Sydow). This latter maguffin takes our heroes to Nottingham where Robin makes the acquaintance of world-weary Marion Loxley and, in a poorly-executed plot turn, agrees to masquerade as her deceased husband.
When word of this project first began to spread, it was, understandably, labelled by many as “Gladiator With A Bow”. If only. While Scott’s 2000 sword and sandals epic hit audiences thick and fast with melodrama and blood-splattered action, Robin Hood is a far tamer affair on both counts. It soon becomes clear that Crowe’s Robin Hood is a poor substitute for General Maximus. And Scott’s latest outing apes its predecessor in many respects. To begin with, there are the romantic leads. Robin, much like Maximus, is a simple soldier, more comfortable with combat than he is with politics. The character of Marion is a poor imitation of Gladiator’s Lucilla (played by Connie Nielsen): a woman of noble birth, widowed at a young age and forced to rely on her wiles to survive in a male-dominated world. However, while Lucilla’s very life depended on how she dealt with the incestuous advances of psychotic and volatile brother, the worst Marion has to put up with seems to be raids from the adolescent bandits encamped in the nearby forest and the occasional pick-up attempts from the lecherous Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfayden in a side-lined role). Even Oscar Isaac’s Prince John echoes the character of Commodus, a scheming, but ultimately weak villain who will do anything to gain power and hold on to it. But while the occasional flashes of pathos and vulnerability in Joaquin Phoenix’s insane emperor served to enhance the sense of unstable menace, Isaacs’ role gives him limited opportunities to instil either dread or loathing in the audience.
The actors, however, are not the problem. All concerned do their best with the roles they are given. One of the principal issues is the script itself. Most of the characters come across as mere pawns in the cloak-and-dagger world of medieval politics. A more character-focused approach would have been welcome. Granted, the myth of the hooded man has its fair share of recurring set pieces, such as the quarterstaff duel with Little John and the archery contest for the silver arrow (both are sadly lacking here). But one of the features that has ensured the lasting popularity of the myth in popular culture is the broadly drawn personas of the key players. Crowe and Blanchett are fine actors and make a handsome onscreen couple, but all the talent and chemistry in the world cannot make up for the fact that the script has given them little to work with. Both Robin and Marion are swept along by events over which they have no control: a far cry from the champions behind the fight against social injustice that audiences have come to know and love. Mark Strong, as the movie’s principal antagonist, Sir Godfrey, could have made a deliciously hissable villain, but is seldom given the chance to have fun with the role. The closest Godfrey gets to establishing himself as an über-heavy is the scene in which he taunts the blind Lord Loxley as the two engage in a very one-sided duel. The only member of Robin’s band to stand out is Little John, chiefly because of Duran’s natural charisma and screen presence.
Then there are the action scenes. Scott is adept at putting together exhilarating set pieces in his action-driven films, but the magic seems to be absent in Robin Hood. Each action sequence seems to lack punch. The fact that Scott has reined in his blood-lust for this production is no excuse – Peter Jackson’s depiction of the epic battle of Helm’s Deep was almost gore-free, proving that gallons of claret are not necessarily a must when it comes to staging spectacular battle scenes. Scott’s confrontations seem to end before the audience has had a chance to fully engage with the action and each battle tends to fizzle out rather than rise to the rip-roaring climax it should (i.e. “Are you not entertained?!?”). Compare Errol Flynn’s duel with Basil Rathbone forty-odd years ago to the brief and clumsy confrontation at the end of this film and it becomes clear that a bloated budget and stellar cast cannot compensate for lazy direction, a middling score and unimaginative cinematography that fails to capture the chaos in its true bone-crunching glory.
The end result is a forgettable mess, a medieval melodrama that does not add up to the sum of its parts. Staple characters like Friar Tuck and the Sherriff of Nottingham appear to have been crowbarred into the film and individual scenes convey a sense of having been hastily shot and then stitched together to produce a vaguely coherent plot that lacks character development and any real sense of fun. Cinemagoers will most like find themselves yearning for the Robins of times past rather than the sombre hero on offer here. Sorry, Ridley, but this Robin misses the mark by a country mile.