When Collider was covering the production of Robin Hood, there was a stretch when the movie didn’t have a title and we just had to refer to it as “Ridley Scott’s Untitled Robin Hood Project”. After seeing the final cut, I think that title would still work. There is nothing special about Scott’s take on Robin Hood. It tries to ground the familiar story within a larger tale of political intrigue and an attempt by France to take over England. But this attempt at “realism” only dwarfs the Robin Hood legend. By the time the film remembers it’s trying to uphold Robin as a legendary figure, it rushes to make him the champion of a proto-Magna Carta. The result is a plodding, joyless endeavor that pulls punches on its few action scenes and slogs through the drama. Despite some solid supporting performances and production design, Robin Hood is nowhere close to legendary.
The movie starts out strong enough. Ridley Scott knows how to shoot action and the film kicks off with an exciting battle between the forces of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) taking a French castle and bowman Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) shows he is the world’s best archer and most honorable man. After Richard takes an arrow through the neck in battle, Robin and his fellow soldiers/future merry men (Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle) go AWOL only to encounter Sir Robert of Loxley who is returning to England to deliver the crown when he is ambushed by Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong) so that …oh my Christ I’m bored already. Here’s what you need to know: Longstride has to take the cover of Loxley and Godfrey is tricking the new ruler King John (Oscar Isaac) into creating civil war so that French King Charles II can swoop in and overtake England. The film has a big action scene at the beginning, a big action scene at the end, and everything in between is dull political machinations that makes the legendary figure of Robin Hood seem small and unimportant until almost the end of the movie when we discover that his dad apparently wrote the Magna Carta.
Robin Hood aims for historical realism and that’s the last thing you want when telling the tale of a legend. Antoine Fuqua tried it out in 2004’s King Arthur, and it doesn’t work. When filmmakers say they’re bringing “realism” to these tales, what they really mean is that they’re making it “grittier”. Characters have grubby faces and are made up in well-worn clothing, and if the film has a large enough budget, you won’t think that everyone wandered out of a Renaissance Fair. And I don’t necessarily mind the look or even that all the characters have perfect teeth and aren’t dying of the plague. What I mind is that they’re one-dimensional. You want to show me a realistic Robin Hood? Try not making him the best guy ever. How about he does some things that make you uncomfortable and question his moral compass? But you won’t get that, at least not in a $200 million movie.
With a character so simple, it fell to Crowe to make him come alive and the Oscar-winning actor fails completely. He mutters his dialogue and sleepwalks through the entire film. I don’t know how you can unethustically flirt with someone but Crowe manages to pull it off when Robin strikes up his relationship with Marian (Cate Blanchett). Great actors can take lean characters and make them come alive. Crowe’s Robin Hood is borderline comatose. Energetic performances from Durand, Grimes, Isaac, and Blanchett only serve to highlight Crowe’s laziness. As the film rolled on and on and on, I thought back to Gladiator, a similar role and character, and tried to remember if that was a good performance. It was. The character’s interaction with people brought out a diversity of emotions, and he was enough of a badass that you understood how he commanded a loyal following no matter his circumstances. But with the grand machinations of Godfrey competing with the wisdom of the loyal chancellor William Marshall, Robin is a small character made even smaller by Crowe.
Without a strong central character or a fresh take, there’s no reason for this Robin Hood to exist. You know the story. The film tries to play like it’s building to how he became an outlaw, but that transition doesn’t feel like a grand betrayal or tragic fall. It’s an unfortunate inconvenience that happens in about a minute that completely deflates the turning point of when a man became a legend. Instead of a rousing origin story, we’re left with a simplistic tale of Robin Longstride = Good, Tyranny = Bad. Now stretch that out to two hours and twenty minutes and you have Robin Hood: a film that should have been grand adventure but instead is an absolute chore.