Robin Hood, 2010
Cast: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Kevin Durand, Mark Strong, Danny Huston, Matthew Macfadyen, William Hurt, Max von Sydow
The story of an archer in the army of Richard Coeur de Lion who fights against the Norman invaders and becomes the legendary hero known as Robin Hood.
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Generally, trying something new is always worthwhile. Movies, especially Hollywood movies, love to play it safe to begin with which can make for a lot of repetitive film watching. Throw in a fair amount of behind-the-scenes rewriting and tweaking in the process of a movie actually getting made and it's easy for whatever was new and different to get lost or bent so firmly out of shape any original vision is lost. This doesn't mean the attempt shouldn't be made, but even when taking a break from remakes and sequels you can still end up with a mess.
Which is how you get a "Robin Hood" movie that takes what would be the first 15 or 20 minutes of any other version of the story and stretches it out to nearly two and a half hours.
Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is a common yeoman and archer in the waning days of King Richard's (Danny Huston) crusade, desperate for nothing more than to return home to England. When Richard's right hand man, Robert of Loxley, is murdered by French agents, Robin takes his name and his place and soon finds himself in the middle of a clash between Saxon barons, the newly minted King John (Oscar Isaac) and a French invasion attempting to take advantage of the country's civil unrest.
If that doesn't much like any version of "Robin Hood" you've ever heard, that's because its not, contenting itself more with political espionage and drama and large medieval battles than with Merry Men and Sherwood Forest. Which is fine as far as it goes; there's no reason a Robin Hood film has to be the same as every other or to judge this one for what it's not. But, if you're going to go out of your way to give up the well-known structure you've got to replace it with something that works and director Ridley Scott's version doesn't have that. Instead it throws a mixture of English history and medieval derring-do, seemingly at random, hoping for something to stick.
The basics are all here: Prince John taking the keys to the kingdom and levying taxes on the Saxons, holding them down; Friar Tuck and Little John and all the Merry Men; a cowardly Sherriff of Nottingham; even a little robbing from the rich. But it's perfunctory compared with the central plot, serving to do little more than muddy the waters and lessen any drama there could have been.
It turns out that John's right-hand-man Godfrey (Mark Strong) has been conspiring with the French to help John destabilize the country so that it will be easier for the French to take over. Only by banding together will England get out of that mess, no easy task when it will require the exceptionally arrogant John to give up so much of his newly inherited power.
So what you've got here is really a story about England fighting a foreign invasion, interspersed with precursors of what will be the Robin Hood mythos. There's no reason that couldn't work, but it would require a solid replacement of the central dramatic thrust of the story (robbing from the rich to give to the poor) with something just as good, but you don't really get that. If it is going to go so far against expectations of a Robin Hood story it should go all the way, using dramatic irony and reinterpretation of past events to throw new light on what we know will happen. When "Robin Hood" actually does that, mostly in the first half as Robin meets his fellow merry men and makes his way to Nottingham, it works quite well and offers a glimpse of an excellent reimagining of the old story. But then it stops halfway through and plods ahead with more classic "Robin Hood" tropes that don't reward what's come before and can't, because of the nature of the chosen structure, be paid off.
That said, there is plenty to like and if "Robin Hood" could have fulfilled on its early promise Scott and company could have really had something here. Barring a few pieces of unneeded overacting, most of the performances are fine, especially from Crowe and his men, and Blanchet's strong version of Maid Marion, who's been running things while her husband has been off to the Crusades. Danny Huston does a very memorable King Richard and its unfortunate he's not in more of the movie.
There is also quite a bit of time given to the positive relationships in the film and how they lead the characters where they need to go: between Robin and Marion and his namesake's father Walter (Max von Sydow), John and his famous mother Eleanor (Eileen Atkins). There's a lot of time given to showing how the different characters are pushed and pulled along, but it doesn't really pay off except for Robin and Marion. And Blanchett and Crowe, however good they are individually, don't have a lot of chemistry together.
"Robin Hood" looks great and often benefits from sparking dialog by screenwriter Brian Helgeland (among many others who put their hands to it), with the sort of well executed mise-en-scène we've come to expect from Scott, but it's a lot of sound and thunder that amounts to nothing. Bringing new ideas to an old standard is always a worthwhile cause, but that doesn't mean it will necessarily lead to anything good. This "Robin Hood" is an unfortunate proof of that.