Looking for company at a Robin Hood press screening, I invited a friend who, while not a film critic, regularly attends pre-release, word-of-mouth screenings. “Sure,” he replied. “It’s Ridley Scott. It has to be good.” “Not necessarily,” I replied, informing my friend that Sir Ridley had been in a creative slump as of late. My friend scoffed at this — like many, he still associates the Oscar nominee with accepted classics like Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator - until he glanced at the director’s IMDb page and saw a list of recent releases that he had either chosen to skip or forgotten entirely. Body of Lies. American Gangster. A Good Year. Kingdom of Heaven. Hannibal. Not terrible films, mind you. But not very memorable ones, either.
So, is Scott’s latest any better? Sturdy and taut, but inches shy of rousing, Robin Hood transcends most of the dramas in that recent, disposable collection of flicks without ever approaching the pinnacle achieved by the director’s best endeavors. To be fair, few filmmakers could rival the back-to-back stretch Scott enjoyed from The Duellists in 1977 to Blade Runner in 1982, including Scott himself.
It is a strange decision made by the director and his screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, to tell the origin story of noble archer Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) without following through on his eventual adventures as the legendary British outlaw. For while there is plenty of story to be told in Hood, and more than enough historical material (with allusions to contemporary politics) to sustain the film’s 140-minute run time, the finished product comes off as an interesting prologue for a sequel we’ll only see if enough people come out and support this initial pass.
And they should. Crowe and Scott have rediscovered those heroic rhythms that propelled their Oscar-winning Gladiator without simply retreading the same waters. Crowe’s Longstride is a charismatic leader of men caught in a tug of war between England’s foolish, egocentric King John (Oscar Isaac, resembling Joaquin Phoenix’s Gladiator ruler) and marauding French King Philip.
Robin’s chief opponent in the film is Godfrey (Mark Strong), a British enforcer manipulating both rulers, though the dubious Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen) lurks and assumes his role as primary oppressor before the credits roll. Other familiar faces from Robin Hood folklore include Friar Tuck (Mark Addy), Maid Marion (Cate Blanchett), and the legendary Merry Men, who certainly lighten the mood.
Robin Hood, in fact, is very playful in spirit, even as it’s addressing the bloodthirsty political maneuverings for England’s throne or defending the rights of Nottingham’s oppressed citizenry as they stand up to additional taxation to fund the unpopular Crusade of King Richard the Lion Heart (Danny Huston). There’s fertile soil for those wishing to plant connections between Robin’s impassioned speeches and the ideas behind today’s Tea Party demonstrations. But the film also stands on its own as a rich adventure that appeals to supporters of handsome, period storytelling.
Of course, it’s not without fault. Scott’s battle sequences draw on Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Troy, 300, and on and on. The film needs one “Wow” scene; this is a summer blockbuster, after all. And every character not named “Robin” receives basically one note to play, from Blanchett’s frustrated feminist to Strong’s scheming weasel. Credit the dependable stable of actors Scott has assembled — notably Huston, John Hurt and the great Max von Sydow — with somehow producing a symphony.
Scott’s take on Robin Hood literally ends with a beginning. King John declares Crowe’s hero to be an outlaw, and a regal-looking title card proclaims, “And so the legend begins.” Of course, that makes you wonder what you just sat through for almost two-and-a-half hours. But Robin Hood never bored me, and when the tease floated across the screen, I wanted to see what Scott and Crowe would do next with the character. That has to count for something.