If you can get over the fact that this is most assuredly not the story of Robin Hood of Nottingham Forest, eternally battling the evil Sheriff of Nottingham for Maid Marion’s hand, you might find that Robin Hood is an interesting and exciting war movie set in medieval times with Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) as the central character.
Like director Ridley Scott’s last outing with Crowe, Gladiator, Robin Hood is a dirty, gritty movie with so much mud that you’ll begin rooting for the invention of washing machines to help brighten up the landscape. Crowe plays the same character he plays in all his films, the troubled, misunderstood rebel who just wants to be loved, with grimaces and tough looks aplenty. Perhaps he needs to extend his range a bit in his next project?
Considering this as a medieval war film leads to the question of whether it actually makes sense, and in many ways Robin Hood feels like it’s two movies, the first exploring the experience of a military man returning to a decaying England after a decade pillaging Europe on the Crusades, and the second where the writers suddenly realize that they have an end point less than an hour away and need to have created the entire Robin Hood backstory and mythology. What is Maid Marion’s (Cate Blanchett) relationship to Robin? Why is Robin the sworn enemy of the Sheriff (Matthew Macfadyen)? Why does Friar Tuck (a delightful Mark Addy) turn his back on the church and join a rebel band?
It’s the second part, with Robin leading the English against a half-hearted invasion by the foppish French King Phillip, where the action gets exciting but the story – and storyline – get left in the ever-present dust. Reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s recent Sherlock Holmes (read my review of Sherlock Holmes), Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is a darn good movie but has almost nothing to do with the story we all know. If that bothers you, skip Robin Hood. If you can look beyond it, you might just find this an exciting knights and serfs film.
Every film exists within our experience of other films prior, and while I was watching Robin Hood it wasn’t earlier Robin Hood movies (most famously Errol Flynn) I thought about but rather The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Lord of the Flies and Monty Python and the Holy Grail that kept running through my mind, along with the under-appreciated hodge-podge that was Timeline, also set in medieval times but based in France, not England.
The film opens with titles that explain that “in times of tyranny, the outlaw takes his place in history” as, presumably, a justification for Robin and his anti-establishment efforts. The problem with this positioning, and indeed one of the greatest problems with this epic retelling of the Robin Hood legend, was that he wasn’t anti-establishment at all, but comfortably stepped into the role of leading the English troops and rallying the northern Lords of England to remember that only a united England could withstand a French invasion. I kept wanting him to cause trouble, to assault the King’s tax collectors, to defend a downtrodden serf, but Scott made a crucial blunder in that his foes were all unabashedly evil, especially the cartoonish Godfrey (Mark Strong), who served as his antagonist, but was such an unlikeable character that we cheered his eventual demise.
Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett in “Robin Hood”
Cate Blanchett was a curious choice for this reimagined Marion of Loxley role too: she is dour and angry for almost the entire film, and it’s only near the very end of the movie that we see her even crack a smile. Then again, everyone in Robin Hood was gloomy and upset, which, combined with the muddy, grey exteriors, gave the film a strange, heavy mood. Like a turbulent plane flight, parts of Robin Hood felt like they were there for us to endure, not enjoy, even as other scenes reminded us of the directorial capabilities of Scott and Crowe’s acting skill.
The sub-plot in Robin Hood that most baffled me, though, were the wild band of orphan children who existed by stealing from the Nottingham villagers without fear of reprisal. The Sheriff ignored them and everyone else seemed to be powerless to do anything about the situation. Even as the village is later attacked by soldiers, we see the shirtless, masked boys on the periphery, watching without reaction. Cut to them on horseback, fighting alongside Robin and his pre-Merry Men against the French. But why? What caused this change in their loyalties, and why did they decide to leave their forest and join forces?
I was also troubled by the portrayal of King Richard (Danny Huston) — famously in legend Richard the Lionhearted — as a petty King who asks Robin to speak candidly of his opinion of the Crusades that they’ve been on for the last ten years, then punishes him when Robin answers honestly. His younger brother who remained in England in Richard’s absence, Prince John (Oscar Isaac), is again a character who is so one-dimensional that it’s impossible not to dislike him. A bit more depth, a bit less whining, would have made a far more interesting character.
Still, the story of a rag-tag bunch of soldiers who exploit opportunity then find the moral strength to fight for a cause greater than their own material benefit is a strong hook and for all its flaws and mishandling of the Robin Hood legend, I enjoyed the film. Robin Hood isn’t a great movie and there are times when it’s entirely too similar to Gladiator, but if you enjoy rough and rugged men on horseback and honor writ large, then I think you’ll find this a splendid 140 minutes of your time.