Robin Hood is one of those enduring characters of English legend. His cunning, his daring, his leadership and friendship and of course his love affair with the fair Maid Marion is a story that has survived retelling for hundreds of years. Such a story and such a man is ideal for Hollywood film-makers in search of inspiration and so there have been countless movies and TV series’ charting his exploits and those of his Merry Men. That brings us to yet another big-screen version brought to us this time by the men responsible for Gladiator. So then more men in trees with bows and arrows and ill-fitting tights? Not entirely, this Robin is definitely a horse of a different colour.
The story begins at the turn of the 12th Century. King Richard the Lionheart of England has waged a bloody and unsuccessful crusade against Islamic armies in Jerusalem and is returning home. In his army are two men whose fates are intertwined, Sir Robert of Loxley, a knight and advisor to the King, and Robin Longstride, a common archer. When the King falls, and Sir Robert succumbs to an ambush by French forces it is up to Robin to return the crown to London and Loxley’s sword to Nottingham. The newly crowned King John, brother to the slain Richard, sets about enforcing martial law on his people and collecting taxes and tithes owed to the crown. The man burdened with this onerous task is the devious Sir Godfrey, a man who has his own reasons for wanting to turn the English against their king and so who sets about burning, killing and pillaging everything in his path. In France King Phillip, having suffered at the hands of Richard is keen for revenge and sees this as this perfect opportunity to strike a fractured England. And in the middle of all this is an ordinary man trying to fulfil a promise made to a dying man who gets caught up in the political and military repercussions of ongoing events. That man is Robin Hood, and his men aren’t so merry…
With an all-star cast the acting here was never going to be anything but good and Russell Crowe does not disappoint as Robin. His confidence in battle and in matters of righteousness is self-evident as is his tenderness and compassion for peoples suffering and hardships. Crowe makes Robin’s character arc from soldier to saviour believable through a measured and dignified performance. Cate Blanchett too is never less than totally charismatic as Lady Marion (apparently she’s dropped the Maid bit), a woman forced to take up the role of guardian and provider to the people of Nottingham in the absence of her crusading husband. Her screen presence is graceful, yet powerful and she makes a perfect foil for the magnetic Crowe. Mark Strong as the villainous Godfrey gives another sterling performance, although as the latest Hollywood dial-a-bad-guy he is in serious danger of being typecast, the fact that he plays evil men so well means he’s absolutely perfect. Max von Sydow to excels is his role as Sir Walter of Loxley, a man without sight but with great vision. Oscar Isaac’s King John manages to steal almost every scene he appears in, a product of the Monty Python and Blackadder school of wretched snivelling leaders, he is immediately unlikable yet completely watchable. Kevin Durand, Alan Doyle and Scott Grimes turn in fine performances as Robin’s “merry men”, but while offering much needed comic relief they are never truly given enough screen-time to become memorable. The same can be said of most of the supporting characters, particularly Matthew Macfadyen’s Sheriff Of Nottingham who is relegated to a handful of scenes, none of which necessarily enhance the story.
The movie looks amazing, the medieval castles, villages and surroundings are captured in staggering detail and Ridley Scott‘s camera gives the English countryside a chance to shine. The battle sequences are also very well captured, with Scott largely avoiding the ubiquitous shaky-cam and allowing the scale of the action be scene. The opening and closing battles are particularly noteworthy, with the later a bows and arrow recreation of the opening of Saving Private Ryan. Sometimes the action gets away from Scott and towards the end of the final contest moments take a turn from the sublime to the ridiculous, but overall it’s an exceptional looking movie. The sound too is right up there, the sweeping score setting the tone beautifully, whilst not overpowering the visual. The sound effects can be a little off at times with some geese sounding like ducks, and the the thwack of arrows being just a little too loud, but that’s just nitpicking . The movies main weakness however is the plot, a victim of countless rewrites the overall pacing is off. The dialogue and exploratory scenes at the midpoint go on a bit too long, but thankfully there’s another action sequence around to the corner to keep heads up. It also tries to incorporate too many narrative points and the simplicity that so aided Gladiator is sadly missing. It is certain that screenwriter Brian Helgeland loves medieval times (having also penned A Knight’s Tale), what is less certain is if he knows when to stop writing about them. The whole movie feels like a prequel, and even ends with “And so the legend begins” meaning that the audience never gets to see the Robin Hood that we’re all familiar with. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as reinvention can do wonders for stories and characters but little nods to the familiar throughout remind us of what we are missing.
Ultimately though not the Robin we expected it is still a damn fine movie. A tad long a 2 hours 20 minutes, but the action sweeps us through so as we don’t really notice. It’s action-packed so the kids will love it, yet it deals with themes that adults will identify with. And it’s all married to performances from the central duo that stand for themselves. Forget the legend, just enjoy the ride.