Rogue. Freedom fighter. Terrorist. Cartoon fox. The legend of Robin Hood has lent itself to many well-known interpretations over the years, from the dashing Errol Flynn to the rogueish Kevin Costner, via Disney’s comedic vulpine version.
Stepping into the crowded arena comes director Ridley Scott with his own take on Robin Hood, his shooting script the result of a three year writing process which at one time portrayed the eponymous hero as the baddie to the Sheriff of Nottingham’s hero, while yet another posited that both Robin and Sheriff were one-in-the-same man.
The result of Scott’s endeavours is a far more traditional representation of Merrie Olde England’s original action hero, in which Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) has been fighting in the Crusades alongside King Richard (Danny Huston) for ten long years, the latter’s increasingly bloodthirsty orders leaving his army disillusioned and God-fearing.
While Richard plots a return home to retake the throne, his childhood friend, Godfrey (Mark Strong), is scheming to ensure that the path is clear for the French to invade England and take power.
Godfrey’s plan to kill Richard is both helped and hindered by the latter’s death in battle, a botched attempt to ambush the King leading to the murder of Robert of Loxley (Douglas Hodge) and an opportunity for the now disgraced Longstride to assume his identity as he makes his way to Nottingham to return Loxley’s sword to his father, Sir Walter (Max von Sydow).
Once back on home turf, Robin must face the injustice of the new King John (Oscar Isaac) and the infighting of the country’s noblemen while trying to come to terms with his new life as a replacement husband for Loxley’s widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett).
Opening with an explosive sequence which quickly attempts to bring the viewer up-to-speed on the death and destruction Robin and his fellow soldiers must endure each day, Brian Helgeland’s script soon starts to show the strain as he painstakingly begins to set the wheels in motion to try and return Robin to England, incognito.
Sadly, for men who have supposedly laughed, cried, fought, killed and grieved together for the best part of a decade, there’s little sense that these people are anything more than one-dimensional ciphers.
Mainstays of the Robin Hood legend, such as Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes) and Friar Tuck (Mark Addy), are shoehorned into the film with little thought given to personality or motive, the plot only focusing on them when nothing else particularly interesting is going on.
Once Robin has returned home, and ignoring the strange piece of luck that nobody apart from King Richard has ever met the original Robert of Loxley, the film threatens to lurch into life with the crowning of King John and a refreshing performance from Oscar Isaac, who at times appears to be channeling Alan Rickman’s OTT Sheriff from Prince of Thieves.
Indeed, Isaac’s interaction with his mother, played with relish by Eileen Atkins, provides some of the film’s best scenes, but these are soon bypassed for more time with Robin and his burgeoning romance with Marion.
It’s here that the film takes its fatal misstep, misjudging the chemistry required between Robin and Marion and lumbering them with a relationship only slightly more believable than Crowe’s suspect attempt at an East Midlands brogue.
One of the central tenets of the Robin Hood legend is that the pair are star-crossed lovers, their passion leading to her giving up a privileged position to live wild in the unforgiving forest alongside a fugitive from the law.
To watch Crowe and Blanchett try and convey any feeling for each other is as painful as the strained dialogue they are forced to mouth: when at one point Robin exclaims I love you, Marion!, there’s a genuine sense that even Crowe doesn’t quite know why he’s saying it, never mind the audience.
Rent-a-baddie Mark Strong is also give short-shrift , the reasons for his treachery never explored by a script more interested in fitting together the confusing jigsaw puzzle that is Robin’s back-story than ensuring there’s a reason for events occurring. Strong is merely adequate as the one-dimensional Godfrey, his brief time screen time with a similarly underused William Hurt allowing some much-needed moments of tension.
Scott is thankfully allowed the odd directorial flourish, mainly confined to point-of-view shots of arrows hitting their targets, but there’s little evidence on show that this is the same man who collaborated with Crowe on the visually arresting Gladiator.
Crowe handles the few action sequences well enough, but, with an emotional arc told mainly in flashback, there’s not much else for him to do except look grim throughout.
Saddled with a workmanlike script, flat direction and a cast left to their own devices, this is neither a worthy entry into the Robin Hood canon nor an effective action film, its set pieces too infrequent and low key to leave any enduring images in the mind’s eye.
Ironically, it’s a four-minute animated end-title sequence which provides the most stimulating entertainment of this two hour slog, with more energy and care seemingly lavished on its condensed telling of the story than anything which went before it. Perhaps Disney had it right all along.
Robin Hood is out now.