You could be forgiven for asking exactly why we need a new Robin Hood movie. We have seen them countless times before, from the first classic adaptation starring Errol Flynn to Disney’s anthropomorphic animals to Mel Brook’s delightful spoof. It is a story all filmgoers have become familiar with. With the heavyweight director/actor partnership of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe turning their attention to the legend, however, there is good reason to be excited. The last time the two worked together on a period action/adventure movie they made “Gladiator”, one of the finest films of the genre.
It is clear from the very first scenes that Ridley Scott, directing a script by Brian Helgeland (‘LA Confidential,’ ‘Green Zone’), has the intention to create a Robin Hood story we may not have seen before. It is not Robin Hood but Maid Marian who we first see taking up the bow, aiming her flaming arrow to perfection, unrecognisable from the damsel in distress figure we associate with the character. When we are introduced to Robin, he is a nobody, a soldier fighting in France, returning from the crusades and a million miles from Nottingham.
It also quickly becomes clear that Russell Crowe’s incarnation of Robin is far removed from those that have preceded him. Crowe’s Robin is brooding and brawny. Apparently scarred from traumatic events in his past, which are only briefly examined, we are still left feeling that this Robin is seriously lacking wit and guile. Luckily, his “Merry Men” live up to their name and do provide the film with a certain charm. Kevin Durand as Little John is particularly enjoyable, injecting every scene he appears in with a clear sense of fun. Unfortunately, too little attention is focused here and we have to put up with more of Robin’s joyless back-story.
At times this film feels like a Batman Begins for the Robin Hood myth. Everything you thought you knew about the legend is altered as we are taught about the origins of our hero. The problem is, however, that the characteristics people loved most about Robin Hood are gone. The swashbuckling rebel is transformed into a common man with a slightly liberal outlook, motivated by personal revenge as much as compassion. Only in the battle scenes do we really get to see Robin Hood put his famed bow to use and the stealing from the rich and giving to the poor is kept to a minimum. Scott and Helgeland seem to be approaching the idea of how the myth came to be from an angle less based in far-fetched heroics and more involved in the social and economic framework of the country. The result of this, however, is a hero who rarely seems engaging or dangerous.
The strength of the talent in front of and behind the camera does keep the film engaging for its lengthy running time. The supporting cast is exceptionally strong. Mark Strong gives a one-dimensional villain some depth, Max von Sydow gives a typically sterling performance and Eileen Atkins delivers some of the film’s best lines. Ridley Scott has proven in the past that he is a master of creating fantastical or historical worlds and he does so once again. Medieval Britain is stunningly realised and meticulously crafted so that every detail in every frame feels authentic. Rarely has England looked so good. It is a shame, therefore, that the film never really believes in itself. The tone too quickly shifts; it seems in one scene to want to be a serious historical epic and in the next a fun, family, franchise. With such talent involved throughout, you can’t help but feel if it had made its mind up, it could not have failed.