December 24, 2016

Robin Hood (2010)

It is 1199 AD. After witnessing the death of King Richard I in battle, archer Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) escapes back to England with his companions to avoid the inevitable chaos that will ensue. En route Robin meets a dying knight who makes him promise to deliver a sword back to the knight's father in Nottingham, where he meets the widow Marian (Cate Blanchett) and assumes the knight's identity.

You can see why Universal Pictures jumped at the chance to make Ridley Scott's Robin Hood. Not only did the film utilise a widely known and liked folklore character, it reunited the director and star of Gladiator - one of 2000's biggest box office hits, and an Best Picture Oscar winner to boot. I can only imagine that at the end of the day studio heads were sorely disappointed. Robin Hood grossed just $320 million or so from an estimated $200 million budget. Gladiator had cost half as much and earned more than $450 million. What's more, reviews for Robin Hood were pretty negative. All in all it seemed a bit of a mistake for everybody involved.

Had Robin Hood been a medieval drama following a soldier's return from France to England and his insertion, Martin Guerre-style, into another man's life, I suspect it would have received a much more positive reception. Unfortunately it tells its story on the back of Robin Hood, and that brings with it a lot of baggage. The name conjures immediate images of derring-do, swashbuckling action and light-hearted adventure. While there is also scope to approach source material from different angles, it's arguable that Scott's Robin Hood simply shifts too far away from the legend to meet audience and critical expectations. It's a passable medieval drama, although not exceptional, but by most common standards it is fairly poor Robin Hood.

For one thing it essentially works as a prequel. Robin does assemble a band of outlaws, and does retreat to the forest to fight wicked Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham, but he does so after the film's climax. Saving the key material for a hoped-for sequel is a pretty textbook technique in Hollywood, one guaranteed to ensure such a sequel never gets made because nobody cared enough about the original film.

Russell Crowe also struggles with a fairly substandard performance. When he is good, he is great. In this case, the energy and force of personality that powered him through Gladiator feels subdued to the point of seeming a little disinterested. To his credit, he does attempt the English accent that Kevin Costner was forced to avoid back in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. To his and the film's detriment, Crowe fails to nail the accent at all. It is neither convincing nor consistent, and indeed a slightly mean-spirited drinking game can be played - taking a shot each time Robin's accent jumps counties.

Mark Strong had a pretty busy villainous year over 2009 to 2010, playing the antagonist in not one but three major Hollywood films: Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes and John Carter. Here he is probably delivering the least interesting antagonist of the three, but he does get a lot of mileage out of it regardless.

There is a solid supporting cast here, including Cate Blanchett, Oscar Isaac, Max Von Sydow and William Hurt, but they are putting effort into a lacklustre script. When the film was originally put into pre-production, it was a fresh take featuring a more virtuous Sheriff and a less good-hearted Robin competing for Marian's affections. By the time Scott had redeveloped it with screenwriter Brian Helgeland (who has written much, much better scripts than this) it had been transformed into something simultaneously more conventional and yet less faithful to the Robin Hood legend.

There are glimmers of smart filmmaking here: some great individual shots, a good musical score by Marc Streitenfeld, moments of effective humour or drama. It all simply does not add up to a fully enjoyable movie. There is still huge potential for a fresh take on the Robin Hood myth. It is a shame that despite the enormous talents involved, Ridley Scott failed to find that fresh take here.

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