Leave it to Ridley Scott and Brian Helgeland to drain all the life out of the enduring, rousing legend that helped elevate Errol Flynn to the status of screen legend with some of the most exciting swashbuckling scenes ever committed to celluloid. No, this Robin Hood is a dour, joyless affair that's devoid of personality, nearly impressive in its stubborn refusal to be the least bit exciting, and downright laughable for the fact that it stars an actor approaching 50 in an origins story set in the 13th century (when life expectancy was approximately 35). Far too stodgy for the kids to enjoy and a bit too drab to leave a lasting impression on anyone else, it's a lumbering epic that aims for prestige over entertainment value, and sadly misses the mark on both counts.
But, hey -- it looks great!
When King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) dies while fighting the French overseas, expert archer Robin (Russell Crowe), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), Little John (Kevin Durand), and Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle) go AWOL. Meanwhile, Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge) is chosen to return the king's crown to England. As Sir Robert and his men make their way through the forest with their precious cargo, they're ambushed by scheming British traitor Godfrey (Mark Strong) and his fierce band of French soldiers. Godfrey has cut a deal with the French King Philip's aide (Abraham Belaga) to open the gates for a French invasion, and when Prince John (Oscar Isaac) is crowned king of England, Godfrey becomes his closest advisor. Before Sir Robert left to fight, he stole his father's sword. With his dying breath, the fallen knight begs Robin to return the sword to his father, Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), in Nottingham. Once there, Robin accepts an offer by Sir Walter to pose as Sir Robert so that the slain solder's wife, Marion (Cate Blanchett), won't lose the family's land when her father-in-law dies. Before long, word has started to spread that Godfrey and his malicious band of French marauders are plundering English villages under the guise of collecting taxes for the king. When the pillagers arrive in Nottingham, Robin and his men leap into action. Meanwhile, the French approach from the coast, and prepare to invade.
It's always refreshing to see a new twist on a familiar tale, but while Helgeland's screenplay for Robin Hood does show occasional flashes of innovation (such as portraying Friar Tuck as a beekeeping moonshiner), virtually everything else drags the movie down by turning the lively legend into a grim, lifeless affair punctuated by dreary action sequences. The first 30 minutes are a brain-straining blur of faraway locales and carousel character introductions, and while everything comes together rather nicely once Robin and his men reach Nottingham, the film never really hits a satisfying stride, even when the action starts to pick up later on.
Back in 2000, cinematographer John Mathieson's high-frame-rate action style gave Gladiator a ferocious edge that perfectly complimented Maximus' valiant struggle; here, it just feels like the photographer is straining to make lightning strike twice. And it might have been forgivable were the battle scenes more coherent. Unfortunately, Oscar-winning editor Pietro Scalia doesn't do Scott or his DP any favors, falling back on rapid-fire cutting every time the arrows start to fly and the swords start to clash.
Speaking of swords, why expert archer and skilled fencer Robin rides into the final attack with a small hammer on the end of a long stick is a question that's likely to leave most folks scratching their heads. Save for one gorgeous archery porn shot in the final moments of the last fight and an amusing sight gag involving a public post, Robin's skill with a bow and arrow -- or a sword for that matter -- is nearly played down to the point where it would barely register as a character trait for the uninitiated. In Scott's Robin Hood, that's almost indicative of the film as a whole; virtually none of the characters, aside from the villains, display any kind of individuality. As a result, it's not much fun to cheer them on. The one surprise standout in this respect is relative newcomer Isaac, who even manages to outshine stalwart bad guy Strong as a bastard worth hissing about.
Perhaps what's needed to reinvent the Robin Hood legend is for some brash, hungry young filmmaker to really shake things up by taking a less traditional route. This version of the story feels like the product of Hollywood progeny, an unexciting rehash churned out by people who are performing a job for a paycheck, and have no real passion for the story being told. When Crowe draws back his arrow in that final battle scene, you can easily imagine him uttering Danny Glover's famous line from Lethal Weapon: "I'm too old for this sh*t." And he would have been right in so many ways.