Robin Hood Review
Elder brother to Director Tony Scott, who has generally always favoured style over substance (resulting in the occasional masterpiece – Man on Fire), Brit-born auteur Ridley Scott is as famous for his seminal Sci-Fi Classics Blade Runner and Alien, as he is for his relatively recent Battle Epics, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. Few would deny that he is a great Director, but – as with even the best – he has still had a couple of sub-par missteps. Every Director has a favoured actor (Scorsese had DeNiro and then DiCaprio; his brother Tony has Denzel Washington), and – over the past decade – it has become apparent that Ridley’s preferred partner-in-crime is a certain Russell Crowe. Their union started with arguably their best film together – Gladiator – and resulted in a series of always enjoyable, although perhaps never amazing, productions: A Good Year, American Gangsters and Body of Lies. Their latest collaboration, on the eve of Scott’s return to the Alien franchise to make a two-parter 3D prequel, they joined forces once again for another rousing epic period adventure, this time telling the story of the notoriously just outlaw, Robin Hood.
“In times of tyranny and injustice when law oppresses the people, the outlaw takes his place in history.”
It’s 1199, the turn of the Century, and Richard The Lionheart is battling his way back through France, after the mess that was The Crusades, to return to his throne in England: a land in disarray under the weak hand of Richard’s younger brother, John. Amidst the chaos, world-weary veteran archer Robin Longstride takes his elite squad of disgraced soldiers on a dangerous voyage to return to their homeland, adopting the identities of fallen knights, and attempting to integrate themselves back into a very different society. But when the King’s trusted lieutenant, Godfrey, reveals his plans to provoke a Civil War, secretly paving the way for a French invasion whilst the country is in disarray, Robin must rally his men, and the country itself, to unite against the opposing forces.
Robin Hood has always been an interesting folklore hero for tales – both written and filmed – and many have been made over the years. The trouble is, much like King Arthur, the fabled character is just so damn hard to get right. Story makers have come up with numerous swashbuckling romps, on both TV and the Big Screen, up to and including the 1991 Kevin Costner adaptation (although that admittedly offered up a slightly more dramatic take on the legend – and is arguably one of the better interpretations). But twenty years on, movie audiences require somewhat more substantial dramas to satisfy them. King Arthur was, somewhat inappropriately, rebooted for the new Millennium, showcasing a supposedly more ‘real’ version on the legend (which was a mistake, as the much more ethereal fantasy, Excalibur, served the subject much better), and, similarly, they have gone the same root for Robin Hood.
“The Untold Story Behind the Legend”
Honestly, I think it was a big mistake. The main problem is in adapting what is essentially myth, into a part of our history and, in doing so, trying to strike a fine balance between fact and fantasy. The reality, of course, is that the project ends up neither having that air of authenticity that would make it historically sound (for example, Elizabeth, which may have aggrandised events, but still founded them within known history), nor does it have the pure entertainment element associated with period fantasy (like Gladiator – or even Costner’s Prince of Thieves – neither of which noticeably rely on true-to-life foundations). That’s not to say that the balance cannot be struck – Stone got it right with Platoon, Coppola with Apocalypse Now – but that here, Ridley Scott does not quite pull it off.
Of course it did not help that the production was so messy – starting off as a project entitled ‘Nottingham’, with a script about a ‘good’ Sheriff of Nottingham, then getting delayed and rewritten (allegedly at Scott’s behest) to offer the more traditional focus of Robin Hood versus the Sheriff of Nottingham. Payback’s Brian Helgeland was hired to do the new draft of the script, which spun this rather unique take on events. The end result is a mottled mish-mash of what we know, and what could have possibly happened had some of these fictional characters been involved with real individuals and real events from the past. It’s far too theoretical, trying to push pure myth into the very fabric of our known history. Of course, it did not help that, even after the script was rewritten, the writer’s strike caused even more production delays. And after all that Scott was still not happy and had Helgeland turn in yet another mutated draft. Honestly, I think they would have done better with Helgeland writing his own script from scratch – or in staying faithful to the first, fairly original role-reversal (Crowe’s Nottingham as a good guy; Robin as a villain) vision – as here it feels as though someone else’s characters are being puppeted around by a new writer, who is heavily influenced by a Director that can see his vision, but simply cannot put it on paper himself. What we have is basically a combination of the originally envisioned ‘good’ Sheriff of Nottingham, spliced into the traditional Robin Hood persona, and the end result is a little bit off.
“We are men of the hood, merry now at your expense!”
Which is not to say that Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is a bad film. Not by any means. It’s just neither Robin Hood, Gladiator-style, (which is basically what most fans expected from this particular Scott/Crowe pairing), nor Robin Hood, fun action-adventure romp in tights. It’s so damn serious that you simply wonder what part the fabled folklore hero would play in such a world – the only scene in the movie where Crowe looks like he doesn’t have a stick up his ass is when his ‘merry men’ mock him for asking them to call him ‘Lord’, to keep up appearances. Really, even Costner had a better time in the role – and in Prince of Thieves the Robin character had been imprisoned, had his father butchered and left for him to find the rotting body, and had had his trusted butler blinded: he almost had a reason to go dark with his portrayal. Crowe has no excuse to go all ‘Maximus’, which is, essentially, what he does.
Since I’ve started in on the man, I think I should qualify this by saying that I think Russell Crowe is one of the better, more watchable, and most reliable actors of his generation – he can do epic powerhouse, Gladiator-style, but he can also bring significant nuances into the mix, as with Master and Commander. He can pull off the subtler, quieter, less grandstanding roles too. But, boy did he not bother to bring anything new to Robin Hood – instead channelling pure Maximus for the duration (complete with EXACTLY the same haircut – Scott apparently requested that he “cut it like it was at the beginning of Gladiator”). He certainly is the coolest-looking Robin Hood that’s been committed to film – but I’m not sure I can’t pick up that jacket in Top Man. And what was going on with his accent? Maybe this won’t be much of an issue for non-UK-ers, and whilst I appreciate the lengths that he went to in order to shed his Australian twang but, frankly, Crowe has got a whole bunch of accents going on here – I detected Irish, Scottish, a bit of Cornish, a sprinkling of Mancs and some Yorkshire tones for pudding. At one point he even changes accent completely mid-sentence. Ah well, I nitpick when essentially Crowe’s biggest problem with the character was that the guy just had no heart. He was a mercenary – a highly trained soldier – and he just happens upon this massive political conspiracy, and this cold-to-the-bone protofeminist widow, and decides to become her fake husband, and the spokesperson for the oppressed common-folk. It’s literally out of frakking nowhere.
“Cometh the hour, cometh the man!”
I didn’t have much of a problem with Crowe’s age (other than the fact that it somewhat stifles the chances of going balls-out for a sequel), but I did think that the presence of a clearly fortysomething Cate Blanchett, as widow Marion, highlighted the ‘older’ cast here. It’s not terminal, and Cate is enjoyable enough (even if her take on Marion is unquestionably tainted by modern feminist sensibilities – rather than just an example of a strong-minded woman in her time, this is a strong-minded woman from our time injected into the past) but where do they go from here in terms of sequels? Which was surely the intention with this whole ‘Robin Hood Begins’ approach.
The cast is brimming with familiar faces in notable roles – William Hurt gets to play one of the few reasonably accurately depicted real historical figures; Max Von Sydow is, basically, Max Von Sydow, one of the two forms of acting that he has brought to the screen in the last couple of decades (the other, of course, being Ming); Oscar Isaac makes for a poor-man’s Joaquim Phoenix, mirroring the latter’s weasely prince from Gladiator, as the weasely Prince John; and Eileen Atkins just makes you yearn for Vanessa Redgrave, in her role as the Queen Mother (which Redgrave would have played, had her daughter not, regrettably, been lost). Almost unrecognisably ugly, and on cowardly, lecherous form, Pride and Prejudice’s Matthew Macfadyen plays the Sheriff of Nottingham (a ridiculously tiny cameo role, and a terrible lame performance, which does not bode well if his character is to be integral to the sequel), and Kevin Durand – who was on wide-eyed top hamming-up form in the final season of Lost – works well as Little John. Then you have Mark Strong, who has basically become the go-to guy for archetypal English villains in modern productions – from Sherlock Holmes to Kick-Ass – and, whilst he is always reliable for this kind of slimy, snivelling, cold and calculating cruelty, he is undeniably facing some serious typecasting here. Throw Danny Huston’s antihero version of Richard ‘The Lionheart’ into the mix and you get an eclectic cast, who are almost all on good form, but who simply do not bring this mish-mash production to life.
“Your next move will be your last.”
I’ve got to lay the majority of the blame on Ridley Scott’s shoulders though. The man knows how to Direct, so I’ve no idea why his effort here smacks of a distinct lack of inspiration. Even with a lousy script he could have brought something visionary to the table. Yet he, more so than even Crowe, appears to be content just to ‘go all Gladiator’ on the production, failing not only to bring anything new to the mix, but also to film something that stands up to comparison with his decade-old modern classic. Robin Hood may be epic in runtime, but it is far from epic in cinematography; the battle scenes neither seeming original (what’s with the random Saving Private Ryan-esque D-Day landing scene? And what’s with those boats?!) nor particularly engaging. And I know that since this is an ‘origin’ story, the fate of many of the characters is pre-known (It’s not like they could have killed off Batman in Batman Begins), but there is no sense of danger for these individuals. You can see the outcome of almost every single battle scene – they are totally one-sided (and normally with archers sniping a bunch of snarling bad guys) – and without peril, you don’t much care for the action itself. No tangible reason for what they are doing, and no threat of an end-of-the-world outcome (as the film’s French invasion plotting intends for).
Ultimately this Scott/Crowe Robin Hood has no heart. There’s no pure enjoyment to be had here, just a long – overlong – voyage into a pseudo-real world (where no folklore legend should reside), telling the tale of an archer-turned-mercenary who fights – for little apparent reason – to save his country from both Civil War and invasion. And whilst plenty fall by the wayside, the end result is decidedly inconsequential – neither any part of real English history, nor a wonderfully realised, fantastical ‘alternate universe’ take on events. It’s dry, overly serious and badly plotted (with everything from some random Lord of the Flies-esque forest kids in it, to a massively contrived ending tacked-on to pave the way for Robin’s ‘outlaw’ status). And it lacks punch even in its distinctly un-epic battle sequences, which is just totally unforgiveable.
Sure, credit to a couple of nice arrow shots (although even those borrow heavily from Prince of Thieves), and hefty arrow barrage in the closing battle, and to the immaculate production design in general, and you cannot forget that this is still a fairly watchable affair at the heart of things – but it is just indelibly marred by a distinct sense of ‘what could have been’. And of course, since this is proudly announced as being an origin story – and since it fared well at the Box Office – there is clearly the intention to provide sequels (I think Scott has mentioned two!). In that event one can only hope that the filmmakers finally bring something new to the mix, and inject some much-needed life into this iconic, fabled swashbuckling antihero.
“...and so the legend begins.”
This particular release of Robin Hood comes in two different flavours – a 141 minute Theatrical Cut, and a 156 minute Unrated Director’s Cut. Obviously any decent explanation of what is on offer in the longer version would probably include some description of plot elements which may spoil the proceedings for a fresh viewer, so I’ve left them to the end of the review so that readers, familiar with the movie after having seen it in the cinema, can find out whether or not their impression of it will likely be changed by this longer edition.
So, going into the extended cut, there were several things that I hoped would be resolved, namely: Who were the strange forest-dwelling Lord of the Flies urchins? Why did King John suddenly change his mind about confronting the Northern barons with ‘pikes to their gullets’ and instead, rather randomly, decide to just talk some sense into them instead (something which William Marshall was shot down for even suggesting barely a couple of scenes earlier)? And how did everybody discover Robin’s true identity at the end? For the majority of the movie it was a big secret, then, at the end, suddenly the King is announcing that ‘Robin Longstride’ is an outlaw (not Robert Loxley). Was this ever explained? And what happened to the thousands of English soldiers who were pillaging their way across France on their return home? Where did they go and what on earth were they doing to enable France to not only dismiss them, but actually invade England themselves?!
All in all, the Unrated Director’s Cut, which runs at some 15 minutes longer than the theatrical edition, is a marginally better movie. But the emphasis is definitely on ‘marginally’. We get to find out a bit more about the urchins, where they have come from, and what they are doing – as well as get to see how they befriend Marion (and Robin), and why they would make potential companions to live with, in the forest (as happens at the end). I can see why they were cut though, it’s a poorly developed added dimension, which hasn’t been thought out properly (their mothers are back in the village, so they are basically stealing food out of their mothers’ mouths – it just doesn’t make any sense) and is brought to life amidst a flurry of zoom-stop, zoom-stop moments where Ridley’s gone wild with a camera, and a haunting lullaby score that sounds like it’s straight out of a twisted Mary Poppins. And why does the leader of the kids have a random Northern Ireland accent? Nope, these should have stayed out – and the Theatrical Cut should have been trimmed of its pointless opening, and of basically any of the Lord of the Flies undertones peppered throughout.
Next up, we do find out how Robin’s true identity is revealed (or at least we have a better idea). William Marshall pays a visit to Nottingham, and his old friend Loxley, and he confronts Robin under his true identity. We can only assume that Marshall then foolishly told the King the truth (why?). But at least this makes this particularly big plot hole a little bit more comprehensible. Unfortunately, they still don’t explain why King John randomly changes his mind about talking sensibly to the barons – so that remains a mystery – and they don’t address the thousands of English soldiers who are still heading back from France, pillaging their way across the land. I guess they got distracted by all that French ass. What a silly plot hole, about as big as a fleet of D-Day landing boats in Medieval England.
Still, there is yet more to be found in the longer edition, which adds lines, and mere moments to many sequences, whilst also adding a few completely new (short and long) scenes. We get a tiny bit more of Danny Huston’s King Richard, and there’s some extra violence (another man catching fire) during the opening battle; the ambush in the woods is now closed by the burial of Robert Loxley, and there are an extra couple of lines during that whole ambush sequence; there is a (wisely cut) strange rap/rave party, unnecessarily duplicating the later, bigger, and more folk-y celebration; and there is one quite good scene where a ram is trapped in a bog, and Marion and Robin bond a little in trying to save it. The scene even allows for a first confrontation between Robin and his potential arch-nemesis (although not as he is depicted here) – the Sheriff of Nottingham. That’s about all I noticed.
Overall if you didn’t like the Theatrical edition, you’ll just find the Director’s Cut an even longer version of a film that probably already feels about 3 hours long. If you were on the fence, it will answer a few questions, make for a slightly more coherent watch, but probably not really swing you either way. And if you loved this version of Robin Hood, you’ll probably lap up the Unrated Cut (and should probably head to the Deleted Scenes straight after). Personally, the film still fails to quite hit the 7 mark, and is marked down because I just expected more from Crowe/Scott et al.